Monday, September 13, 2010

ID Mommy Projects: Make Your Own Train Table!

 My little boy is officially in love with trains.  He eats with them, he sleeps with them, he stuffs his backpack with them when we leave the house, his underwear has pictures of them, and he pretends that whatever car he's riding in is Thomas.  His does not name colors "red, green," or "blue." They are "red like James, green like Percy," and "blue like Thomas." I'm not sure if it's going to be a short phase or a lifetime hobby, but for now, I enjoy indulging him.  Not only have we gone on several train themed family outings, but we've even successfully used trains as motivation when potty training.  As a result, we have begun accumulating wooden train tracks (at garage sales and thrift stores), which got me thinking about train tables.

Store bought train tables are expensive. You can get a simple one for around $100 or a little less, there are many between $200-$300, or you can really bust the bank with this Thomas table for $550.  I've seen many on CraigsList too, although they still can be expensive even used.  When it really comes down to it, kids are going to have just as much fun with their trains whether you spend $500 or $15 on it.

I really wanted to make one myself.  After all, I practically have a college degree in train table building, with my industrial design & model making background.  I had planned on watching at garage sales for a cheap coffee table that I could attach edges to and paint to function as a train table.  Then I thought maybe it would be better just to build the surface itself, to fit over the top of one of our coffee tables, so it could be removed and easily leaned up against the wall when we wanted it out of the way.

But, then I came across this table at the thrift store for $6.95 and couldn't pass it up.  It had the best of both was coffee table height, train table size, already had a lip around the edge to keep trains from falling off, was green on the surface, and the legs actually folded up!! The thing was built like a rock, and I would not be worried about it buckling under the weight of even a couple kids. I'm thinking this may have been somebody's do-it-yourself train table project already.  That, or someone had some very interesting color scheme in their living room.

I stupidly did not buy it the day I saw it, proceeded to kick myself for 24 hours for not buying it, then raced back to the thrift store the next day and luckily it was still there. Whew!

Here's how I transformed the ugly $6.95 table into a sweet train table...

Prepare for Painting

First I removed the screws that attached the legs to the hinges and the hinges to the table so I could paint them.  TIP: Use a permanent marker or pencil to label the pieces so they can go together the same when you're ready to re-assemble:

I always put the screws right into some kind of container, whether it's a baggie or food container, to make sure nothing gets lost.

Next I sanded the legs and the frame.  There are two goals here: 1) roughen up the wood so the new paint sticks well, and 2) remove any loose or chipping paint or drips/bubbles from the previous paint job.  Chipping old paint will bleed through to chipping new paint.

Before you do any painting you'll need to make sure all of the dust is off of the wood from the previous step.  Loose dust underneath will result in loose paint that will flake off later.  Use a brush, or a cloth.  TIP: Making the cloth (or in my case a paper towel) slightly damp will help it to pick up the dust better.

I would have liked to keep the green surface on the table, as it's a good place to start with "grass."  However, it was not properly laminated to begin with and had large bubbles.  While hills may be fun to play on, they don't work so well to keep track pieces together.  To remove the green laminate, I started by slicing into one of the bubbles with a utility knife.

Once I had a slit cut I slipped in a needle nose pliers to get a grip on some of the laminate.

Here it is with a spot peeled away.  It broke into chunks as I peeled it up.

Once I had this larger hole made, I used a spackle blade to slide underneath the laminate and lift it up in larger chunks.  The laminate was tucked under the side frame pieces, so I went around all four edges with the knife so it would break cleanly around the edges.

 While this was the most time consuming part of the preparation, I'm glad I removed the laminate because paint does not stick to it well anyway, and the surface is going to take the brunt of the abuse. I know that the chances of you finding a table with laminate that needs removing is slim, so hopefully you can skip past these steps, but I thought I'd share how I did it.  

Re-Finishing The Table

Next I spray painted the legs and frame using several coats of white spray paint.  Make sure to shake the can well according to the directions.  If you get a clogged nozzle, you'll have a useless can of paint.  TIP: Between coats and when you're done, tip the can completely upside down and depress the nozzle for a few seconds until plain air comes out.  It'll clean paint out of the nozzle, preventing it from clogging.  Just a little something I learned in design school.  ;-)

I did this over several days.  It was really hot and humid at the time so the paint took a while to dry, and I only really worked on it during nap times.

Decorating the surface:

You don't have to be an amazing artist to make grass...You can go as simple as painting it green for grass and leaving it at that. To fancy it up a bit, add a couple blue blobs for lakes, or even add some streets.  I wanted to keep this a surprise for my son so I did this all myself.  However, it would be fun to get your kids involved in making it at this point.  Let them set up their track on the table, and figure out from there where you want to have roads placed.  You can use a pencil or marker to draw what you want where, then go back later and paint it with some acrylic paint.
Since my plan was to cover the whole table with a clear resin, I wanted a little texture to my grass.  My goal was to make a really realistic looking scene, with a little dimension, but still have the durability needed to stand up to a toddler.  I found a large roll of grass, designed for train sets, at my local hobby store for $12.99.

I trimmed off the excess so I had one perfect fitting piece.

I returned a couple days later and picked up a jar of "mat adhesive" for $8.99 to glue it down with, once I realized that a spray mount would not be feasible with such a large piece.  In this case I think it was worth it paying so much for glue to get the right stuff, to ensure that the grass would stay firmly attached.  If the grass ever bubbled up down the road, it could crack the clear resin surface.

I painted the wood surface white with some extra white interior latex we had around from previous house projects.  (I did this because the "mat adhesive" instructions said to paint the surface first.)

Then I applied the mat adhesive, doing half of the table at a time so I could have the grass perfectly positioned, and just fold it in half to apply the glue to both the grass and table.  Once it got to it's clear, tacky state per the directions, I un-folded it and used a roller to press it down into place.  Then I repeated the process for the other half...folding the grass mat over, applying glue, then fixing it down.  It worked well and it paid off to get the right glue and apply it liberally.

Once the grass dried on well, it was time to scrape off grass wherever I wanted to put roads, the lake, and river...

I used a long screw to scrape the outline of my roads and water.

I wanted to make the roads wide enough for two lanes of Hot Wheels, since that's the size car that Sammy has the most of.  So, I used one of his Beetle cars as a guide.

Straight roads are really quick to do, if you have a straight edge to run your nail or screw along!

Next, according to the grass mat instructions, I wet the grass that I wanted to remove.  I used a little spray bottle of water for ultimate control, which I already had on hand because I sell them on my Paintertainment site.  I sprayed small areas and then scraped with my flat X-acto blade.  It worked really well.

 I started with the edges, and then cleared out the inside spaces.

I did this in small sections at a time, to ensure the grass stayed wet where I was working.

I also put a paper towel nearby to drop the larger chunks of grass on as I went.

Painting Roads

Here's what it looked like after all my roads and water were scraped off.  Ooooh...this is really getting fun now! Time to paint some roads and water...

This is a really simple way to get super clean, crisp looking center lines on your road.  You might think that it makes sense to paint the road black and then do dashed lines on top in yellow, but this method will get you the best looking "dashes" for the least amount of time and least coats of paint.  I used acryclic artist's paint for this.  Start by painting a solid yellow line down the center.  It doesn't have to be perfectly uniform in it's thickness, because you'll tidy it up with black next.

Once the yellow dries, take some black and paint along either side of the yellow stripe.  This is where you can make sure it's uniform in thickness...just paint over the yellow wherever it looks too thick.

After you've painted the edges of the road and along either side of the yellow line, and filled in the rest of the black, just paint some black across the yellow stripe to create breaks in the line.  Now you have little rectangular dashes on your road with crisp corners, all aligned with the curve of the street.  It's easier than trying to create a bunch of little rectangles in yellow, on top of black, which would take a lot of precision and many coats to cover the black!

Making The Water
Next I painted the water in blue.  I used a fluorescent blue paint for this, but you can use anything.  This is going to be mostly covered up with glitter anyway but I wanted a nice blue base.

Unfortunately I had a little camera accident and lost the photos of me applying glitter to the lake.  But, what I basically did was just cover all of the blue "water" with Elmer's school glue, making sure to get good coverage.  You can smear it into an even coat with your finger too.  Next, I sprinkled the glitter over the glue, making sure to cover ALL of the glue areas liberally.  Don't worry about having too much glitter piled on your table at this point...we'll remove the excess.  I used some glitter that I found at Michael's, which looked almost like little chopped up pieces of blue cellophane, and was perfect for the ripply water effect I was going for.

Here's what the glitter looks like on the lake.  Don't worry about pouring it exactly in the lines.  It's actually better to go over the edges of the water, to make sure they all get glitter coverage.  I dumped the entire bottle of glitter over the water and river.

Next, wait a while for the glue to dry.  This was really coarse glitter, so I also laid a piece of paper over it and rubbed it with my hand to make it as flat as I could and stuck into the glue.  (I didn't want pieces sticking up out of the resin at the end so I was trying to get as low profile as possible)

After the glue dries, it's time to remove the excess. Lay a big piece of paper or cardboard on the ground, but before doing so, make a crease in it by folding it in half and then opening it back up.  I used newspaper above, which already has a crease.  Put the table on one end and angle it down, and lightly bang on the back with your palm to get the loose glitter to fall on the paper.

Now you can salvage all of the loose glitter by lifting up the edges so it all falls into the crease...

Now bend your cardboard or paper (or roll the paper into a funnel like I did above) and pour the remaining glitter back into the bottle.

I ended up only actually using half of the glitter, so now I have more for future projects.

Painting Trees
Here again I had some more photos and some video clips of me painting trees, but they were lost.  Basically trees from an aerial view look like round blobs, so that's what I did.  I took a green acrylic artist's paint and made bunches of trees as shown above.  Then I went back over them with a slightly darker and a slightly lighter shade of green to add a little depth. 

Painting The Beach

Next, I used a little light brown and tan to paint a beach along one area of the lake.  I thought the texture of the grass coming through helped it look more like sand, so I painted it instead of scraping it off and gluing sand down, which also would look cool.

Making a Dock

I wanted to add a little dock, because Sammy loves to fish off the dock and I figured he'd want some place to dock his toy boats too.  I pulled out some woodgrain patterned Contact paper from a previous project.  I cut a rectangular piece of the light wood, making sure the grain ran across the dock.  Next, I used a hole punch on the darker paper to make perfect little circles, which would function as the posts of the dock.  Using an X-Acto knife, I peeled the paper off the back of the circles to expose the sticky side, and stuck three along each side of the dock.  Next, I removed the paper backing to expose the sticky surface of the dock itself, and simply stuck it on the lake by the beach, like a sticker.

Pouring the Surface

Next was the part I had been waiting for, but also the part that made me most nervous...covering the whole thing in clear resin.  I didn't want to screw this up because it could ruin all the work I had done, but it turned out great.  Here's what I did.

First, I sprayed over the whole thing to seal it with a clear coat, as suggested by the instructions in my package of resin.  If you skipped all the train table grass and glitter and all that textured stuff and just painted everything, you could really be done at this point...just make sure you have a good clear coating over everything to protect it.  A clear Shellac varnish works great too and you can paint it on in many layers for more protection.  You also may want to run a bead of clear caulking, hot glue, or some other glue around the four edges.  This will help prevent the resin from leaking through any cracks around the edges of the table.

For the resin, I used Envirotex Lite pour-on finish because it is simple to use and doesn't create the knock-you-over fumes that other resins create.  They also sell this at Michael's craft stores, so I was able to use coupons and get it half off.  They are normally $29 for each kit of this size, and I needed two 1-quart kits to cover this large area.

Next, I made sure the table surface was level on the floor of the garage, and the temperature was within the acceptable range per the resin instructions.  I gathered a couple plastic containers to mix in, and a wood paint mixing stick to stir.  The instructions recommended pouring the mixture from one container to another for better mixing.

First I opened all the bottles, next I poured both bottles of resin into a container, and then both bottles of hardener.
Next step was to mix vigorously, but only for a couple minutes.  Once the two parts are mixed together, you have to work fast to get it poured. I made sure to end my mixing in this cut-open milk jug, because I thought the handle would be nice for pouring.

I started by the lake because I wanted to make sure the glitter was all covered.

I poured in a back-and-fourth motion as I went across the table, making sure to reach the edges as well. Sorry about the blurry photo...I was trying to work quickly while photographing myself here!

It wasn't quite fluid enough to just level itself out over the whole surface immediately, as you can see here.  It looks like thick syrup.

So, from here I used the broad edge of my paint mixing stick to spread the resin across the surface evenly.  You need to move quickly when doing this, and ensure that every area is covered, especially all of the edges.  Also, try not to scrape down to the level of the grass and glitter, so you don't scratch it up.  It's a lot like spreading frosting on a cake.  Clear frosting that will turn rock hard if you don't do it quickly, on a cake that will crumble if you touch it with the knife.  ;-), isn't it?!  You can see the reflection of our messy garage.  ;-)  You can also see on the right edge there that the grass isn't quite covered all the's a little bumpy.  I put a small chunk of wood under the opposite edge to help gravity pull more resin that way.

Next, exhale.  No really...I don't mean sit back and take a breather...I mean literally exhale a couple inches over the freshly poured resin.  The carbon dioxide that you release when you breathe actually makes the tiny air bubbles in the resin pop, removing them from the surface and making it crystal clear.  Neat-o, huh? Science is cool and can be applied to art, too!

And here it sat to cure. The instructions will tell you how many hours it will take to cure and then to totally harden, depending on the temperature.  I didn't really have space to do this in the house (and didn't want Sammy to see it yet), so I did it in the garage.  You should try to find a dust-free area to do it.  The garage is NOT dust-free, but was better than outside, where stuff could fall out of the trees onto it.  I did have to pick a mosquito and a couple dog hairs out of the resin when I was smoothing it, but other than that, it came out pretty clean.

After letting the table cure for a couple days, I re-attached the legs.  They all fit perfectly where they were, of course, because I had labeled them as mentioned earlier.

And, we're done!!  I love how glossy and reflective the finish is, yet it has depth and texture from the materials underneath.  Sammy still has not yet seen his surprise train table...I can't WAIT to show him, but I'll be stashing this away to give him either for his birthday (train themed of course) in a few months, or if we are able to sell our house and move as a moving day present (since we don't have room for this anywhere in our current house!). I'd say the whole project took me probably a couple weeks, although I could have done it quicker because I did not work on it every day.  It definitely was a fun project to work on between my paid gigs!

Alright, now let's see how much this thing actually cost me in the end...

$7.00 - Train Table
$5.00 - white spray paint
$13.00 - Grass
$9.00 - Mat Adhesive (glue for grass)
$3.00 - Glitter (for water)
$30.00 - Clear Resin (with 50% off coupons)
$0.00 - Stuff I already had on hand (tools, clear coat spray, acrylic paint, school glue, Contact paper, etc)

Grand total: about $67.00

Okay, so yes, you can buy a train table for probably less than this.  And, you can make one for a lot less than this if you skip all the "3D" elements of grass and glittery water that I added.  However, I had a blast making this, I know it's the only one out there like it, and if it were manufactured and sold in a store, I know it would go for a lot more than the expensive ones you can buy now!

Other Ideas Online...

Want to REALLY start from scratch? You can buy instructions to build the table itself at sites like this, or you can go to this site and get plans for free.

If your kid is more into trucks and tractors than trains, Instructables has a nice post about how to turn a train table into a construction table.  Looks like fun!!


  1. Gretchen this is AWESOME! It's a good height for storing train stuff under it, too.

    You'll have to post photos when you give it to Sammy. He'll flip out!

  2. wow that turned out cool! The resin on top is neat. Boy you sure had a nice bunch of progress photos. You are a good and thorough teacher. Your kids are sure lucky to have you as their mom!

  3. My kids are so smart. Where did you learn this stuff ?


  4. We learned this stuff from our parents, of course!! :-) Yeah, I can definitely see a few bins being slid underneath to hold pieces. I'll be taking loads of photos when it is "unveiled" for sure!

  5. hey I LOVE your table!!! I've looked at quite a few and yours is my fave. I totally copied you lol. I just wanted to let you know I linked you on my train table post. Thanks again for your inspiration!

  6. Thanks, Amber! I think we think on the same wavelength. ;-) OH, and if you like this and the train birthday party, be sure to check out the Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt costume too! (also a link on the right column of my blog) Thanks for visiting!!

  7. Wow! I came across your blog while looking for a Sir Topham Hatt costume. I'd actually like my husband to dress up like him for a birthday party! Anyway, I also saw your train table and WOW! You really are good at this! It's amazing. I re-made a table into a train table for my son last year and I was pretty proud of it but this is wow! You're my new hero! I love to make things especially for my kids. I'll be watching your blog for more!

  8. This looks AMAZING!! Thanks for sharing all the steps. I can't wait to try this out on our train table!!

  9. Wow, this looks incredible. Thanks for all the steps. I just wish I would get so lucky and find a table like that. Great job.

  10. That turned out so cool! I googled how to make a train table and I think this is my favorite one I've seen yet :)

  11. Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone! I do admit I got TOTALLY lucky in finding that perfect table and that's half the battle!

  12. I found this on Pinterest and am just blown away. Seriously, this is the best dang train table. You did such a beautiful job and I love the resin top! I will have to put this on my projects list for sure!

  13. Very cool idea! Definitely beats the store bought equivalent!

  14. You are awesome!!! I am inspired. Can you help a fellow momma? I have googled everything to find a way to create an "insert" for the beautiful table we already have picked out. I am trying to create different train scenes, grassy knolls for my daughters calico critters doll house and can't find any instructions or inspiring fellow mommas!! her birthday is fast approaching and I artistic enough to make some! (0= ZenMomma,

  15. I love this! I don't know if you still check this section of your blog or not... But I was curious to see how this train table has held up after a year or so of play.

    Is it still "alive?" Is there anything you would do differently? I've never worked with resin, so this would be an ambitious project for me, but I'm so tempted to try!

  16. @ Lynda Marie - Sorry if my reply is too late! Hmmm, I'd maybe do a panel that's the same size as your current table, but add some sides around it (flush with the top surface but they extend down) so it fits securely over the top of your table, much like a shoebox lid fits over the box, ya know what I mean?

    @ K. Christian - Our table is holding up great! Well, one of the legs came off, but that's because the screws on them had been removed and put back on too many times I think. The wood just got beat up where the screws went in...a problem with the table itself though, not the train surface. Other than that, the table itself, the resin, etc is just like the day I made it and I don't think I'd do anything different! Good luck to you if you do decide to give it a try!

  17. You are amazing. The resin was so inspired. Thanks for the post - I just linked to it on my train blog.

  18. This is so beautiful, I could literally cry. What an awesome mom you are. I am currently on the lookout for an old coffee table to make my own little guy a train table and found you through google. Amazing!!

  19. Thank you SO MUCH for your great tip about how to paint the yellow dashes in the road. I repainted an old train table that we were given, and this saved me so much time, and the roads look FANTASTIC!!

  20. This is such a great tutorial! I am finally ready to try it, and realize you did this on a regular table... how would the resin work on a table that has a thin insert that can come off for storage? Would it glue it in place? Thanks for your help and awesome idea!!!!! Jen

  21. Hi Jen! Yeah, I'd be willing to bet the resin would probably glue down an insert when it dries. If you don't want that to happen, you may just need to build some sort of frame for the insert to sit in just for when you pour the resin...then once it dries you can maybe pop that off and hopefully it'll still slip into place!



Related Posts with Thumbnails