Holidays and birthdays are a classic time for a child to receive a first wooden train set. Or, you might be like we were: eager to encourage your child’s new interest in trains no matter what time of the year it starts. Or perhaps you’ve already started your child’s collection, and you’re looking to add another major addition to it. Whatever the reason you’re in search of the perfect train set, I’ve turned my expert eye on the best wooden train sets that are currently available so that you can make an informed choice. From small beginner’s sets, to fun themed sets, to big complete sets, I have plenty of excellent options for you to consider.
This guide was last updated on December 4th, 2016.
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Posts in the Ultimate Wooden Train Guide:
The Best Wooden Train Sets
The Best Wooden Train Sets: UK Edition
The Best Wooden Train Tables for Toddlers and Preschoolers
Do You Need a Train Table?
Alternatives to Gluing Wooden Train Tracks to Train Tables
Wooden Train Tracks
Bridges and Elevated Tracks
Roundhouses and Engine Sheds
Organizing Wooden Trains and Track
Wooden Train Freight Cars
…and more to come!
I’ve broken down my recommendations by train brand, starting with the higher quality sets and then moving on to some excellent brands that are more budget-friendly. But first, for anyone in a hurry to find a gift, here are some of your very best bets you can jump right down to where I talk about them:
10 Best Wooden Train Sets for Kids 2016
- Brio Deluxe Railway Set: a big, high-quality set with lots of variety
- NameTrain Town Set: a beautifully-crafted heirloom train set with plenty to do
- Hape Railway Forest Railway Set: a pretty, forest-themed set, and a good value and quality for the price
- Dreamup Toys Wooden Train Set: a clever way to combine wooden trains with DUPLO and LEGO
- Whittle Shortline Railroad: super realistic wooden trains handcrafted in the USA
- Thomas Wooden Railway Gold Mine Mountain Set: our long-running favorite Thomas set with a mountain and Cranky the Crane
- Brio My First Railway Beginner Pack Train Set: a Brio set that’s rated 18 months and up, perfect for toddlers who are ready for wooden trains
- Thomas Wooden Railway Battery-Operated Percy and the Mail Station Set: one step up from a starter set, with a motorized engine and mail freight to deliver
- Bigjigs Rail Around the World Train Set: featuring several cute wooden world landmarks
- NameTrain Basic Train Set: a sweet, classic starter train set
Now, lets go in depth and talk wooden trains!
Thomas Wooden Railway
If you’d like to welcome the little blue tank engine into your home, you have two choices: buy Thomas Wooden Railway sets and Thomas trains, or buy non-Thomas sets and add Thomas trains to them. Thomas brand track is by far my favorite. The quality is even better than Brio, and the railroad tie detail looks fantastic in person. While the buildings and trains are featuring more plastic than ever, I still feel — or, perhaps, hope — this is a high quality brand, and nothing can replace the way that having the trains be talking, feeling characters vastly increases the possibilities for valuable pretend play.
Looking at the Thomas sets currently on the market, if you’re searching for a very basic starter set that includes Thomas, take a look at the simple but classic Thomas Wooden Railway Oval Starter Set. However, I would not be quick to recommend this basic set. It looks okay, but the bridge is of a style that comes apart unless all the tracks in the layout are in perfect alignment. You would be better off spending not much more for the Battery-Operated Percy and the Mail Station Set. Or, for a little more than that, there’s the Steaming Around Sodor Set, with a more stable type of bridge — and it’s a covered bridge, which is kind of cool — and more accessories.
New this year, the Race Day Relay Set looks awfully exciting, and the reviews I’ve read say that the train jump ramp really works! I also like how high the hill is. Those long drops are always fun to send trains down, and this set comes with special tracks with side walls to keep the trains from careening off on the curves at the bottom of the hill. It also comes with Gina along with Thomas, and it’s nice to see a female engine in a current set. This looks like a great set for a thrill-seeking engineer.
Speaking of tall hills, the Speedy Surprise Drop Set Train Set claims to be the “highest Wooden Railway track set yet” and features a hidden tunnel to drop into.
Like the other sets in the Creative Junction line, the Creative Junction Mix, Match and Build Set encourages creativity by letting children assemble the pieces of the set in different ways, in this case to create different destinations. I think this is a great idea, and would be perfect for a child who would love having more destinations for telling the stories from the show and books.
If you’re shopping for Christmas, check out the Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway Santa’s Workshop Express. It comes with a snow-covered Thomas pulling a present in a freight car, a Christmas tree, and a North Pole sign. And I kind of want to buy it just for the Sir Topham Hatt dressed as Santa Claus.
The Celebration on Sodor Set has a cute party theme to it and could be fun for a birthday present. The Musical Melody Tracks Set, which looks pretty cool. I love to see Fisher Price experimenting with what can be done with a wooden train set, like the musical chimes on the long downhill slope in this set.
Another new set is the Pirate Cove Discovery Set Train Set, made to go with the Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure DVD. While it appears to feature a whole lot of plastic for a wooden train set in my opinion, this sets seems to have some exciting features, including a ship that “sails” in, a hidden treasure to discover by blasting its hiding place open, and a special track that launches Thomas out into the sea.
Based on the Thomas DVD movie, Tale of the Brave, the Thomas’ Fossil Run Train Set is a platform set with an exciting, curving slope to speed down, trying to evade a rolling boulder! There’s a little gate at the bottom of the hill that opens for Thomas to escape through, and then closes to stop the boulder before it hits him. The artwork on this set is very detailed, giving it a story book feeling, and the set will appeal to any child who is a fan of both trains and dinosaurs.
Finally, our favorite wooden train set of all time is the Gold Mine Mountain Set, which can be found online or in-store at Toys-R-Us. It includes both a fantastic and versatile three-level mountain and Cranky the Crane, making it (relatively speaking) a good value. The set has changed a bit since we bought it three years ago (the main differences seem to be more plastic and no gold dust paint on Salty), but it remains essentially the same. One thing to know about this set in general is that you’re only given enough track to connect two of the three levels of track on the mountain, so you will likely want to supplement it with more train tracks if you don’t already have more. However, you can build a closed loop of track and have plenty of fun with what comes in the box!
Thomas Wooden Railway also has a line of exclusive train sets that are only being sold in their online store and a handful of specialty toy stores around the US. I want to mention them because the sets themselves look awesome and have been getting good reviews, but I have mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, I think it’s admirable that they’re trying to do something special for independent toy stores, and it’s good to see TWR responding to the suggestions of the store owners and trying to return to wooden train sets that are actually made mostly out of wood. However, I feel like the combined scarcity and expense of these sets puts them — and all of the benefit of a new focus on play value — out of reach for most wooden train-buying families. I can understand having one line of sets that is made with more wood than the other, but the sets they’re putting into the regular toy stores and online shopping sites deserve as much thought and care in their design and play-testing as the high-end sets, even if there needs to be a difference in the quality of the materials.
If you want to start with the highest quality from the start, Brio is your brand. The catch is that it also can be expensive. For a long time, I thought we’d never own any Brio trains, but then we started our Brio collection when our local Toys-R-Us was clearing it out over a year ago.
Playing with those sets gave me a great appreciation for not just the quality of the trains but also the brilliance of the train set designers at Brio. Since then, I’ve been happy to pay more for Brio quality. The realism of Brio trains is unmatched by any other wooden train line. And while Brio does use a lot of plastic (their trains are mostly plastic), it’s extremely high quality, heavy duty stuff, and it looks great they way they do it.
Brio’s version of the entry-level train set is their Little Forest Train, which features a cute little steam engine with a log car, along with an oval of wooden track and a pair of trees.
Another simple set to look at is the Brio Safari Railway Set Train Set, featuring a monkey that swings from a tree until the train comes by and it sticks to the magnet on top of the cargo! You can extend this train set with the Brio Safari Crossing, featuring a hippo and crocodile on either side of the tracks whose jaws open and shut as the train passes, and the Brio Safari Train and Brio Giraffe and Wagon.
Brio has also come out with a new pair of bright, colorful train sets that are recommended for 18+ months (instead of 2-3 years and up like most wooden train sets), the Brio My First Railway Beginner Pack Train Set and the Brio My First Railway Starter Pack Train Set. If you’re hesitant about giving wooden trains that are rated for older children to a toddler, these might be a great option for a younger toddler who is interested in trains, and you may also want to check out the cute Brio My First Railway Train.
The Travel Switching Set was a very popular addition to our wooden railway. The Little Engineer loved that it came with two passenger trains, one red and one blue, with drivers dressed in colors to match their trains. The Cargo Harbor Set was a birthday gift last year, and we just love the container ship and the lifting bridge. (It goes very nicely with the Brio Train Ferry, which we gave him along with this set.)
A set that I would love to get is the Farm Railway Set. The barn in the farm set is so cute. The Metro Tunnel Set was part of the Little Engineer’s “surprise birthday layout” this year, and we’ve had a lot of fun playing with the metro tunnels, especially with the door that opens and closes on the metro station. And for the construction-inclined kid, the Rail and Road Loading Set would be a lot of fun. The Brio Steam Engine Set is a great choice for exploring the history of the railway, and it includes rails to place over areas of “rough ground.” Combine it with the Brio Collapsing Bridge for lots of excitement.
The Brio Roller Coaster Set Train is adorable and fun, and I was really happy to see that it does stay together and the roller coaster cars stay on the track. My kiddo is already talking about using the pieces to design his own, bigger roller coaster. The Brio Monorail Airport Set comes with a control tower and airplane as well as a powered monorail train and special monorail wooden tracks. This is a cool set, especially the passenger-holding airplane, but be aware that the tracks need to be secured in some way to each other and the risers (I recommend no-residue duct tape for wooden train tracks). You can also purchase a blue Brio airplane.
Brio Deluxe Railway Sets
Now, this is one of the most expensive train sets I’m putting on this list, but if you’re looking for an all-in-one set with enough variety, durability, and playability to last a childhood (or several), the Brio Deluxe Railway Set fits that description perfectly. It would set you up with a full freight and passenger train system with lots to do. Plus, it comes with a cute storage box.
There is also a smaller — but not small! — Brio Cargo Railway Deluxe Set. This set focuses on freight trains, with three (!) cranes, including a battery-powered crane and a very cool gantry crane that my son loves. There’s also an elevated section of track, and among the trains, they’ve included a battery-powered engine.
Brio has recently added another deluxe wooden train set to its line up, the Brio Railway World Deluxe Set, which includes an airport, a farm, a ferry, a big station, and more. Each of these three sets has a different character, so I hope Brio will continue to offer all for a long while to come!
Maple Landmark NameTrain Wooden Trains
There’s no denying that Maple Landmark makes the most beautiful wooden train sets around. Made in the USA from New England maple hardwood and finished with non-toxic paints and finishes, these heirloom-quality sets are a joy to have around. The quality can’t be beat, to the point that my own two negative observations on the NameTrain sets — that the connections are sometimes cut with a little too much puzzle-piece precision, and that the all-wood wheels and axles don’t roll as smoothly as the usually ones made of metal and plastic — are both due to the exceptional craftsmanship and materials used. I would also advise you to stick to the three years and up rating of these train sets, due to the strong magnets used (just in case).
I highly recommend the NameTrain Town Set. Like the deluxe Brio sets above, it could easily be the only train set you ever need to buy your child. I am very impressed with the complexity and intelligence of the layout design, and you get enough of a variety of track to do some fun things with it. It comes with a whopping SIXTEEN trains, cars, and other vehicles, including a steam engine, passenger cars, school bus, race car, fire engine, ambulance, police car, tow truck, airplane, tractor, taxi cab, and boat. That’s enough to keep multiple children busy at the same time, making it a good choice for large families, schools, daycare centers, bookstores, and doctor and dentist offices. And there are five destinations included (a train station, house, fire station, school, and grocery store), with more buildings available (such as a circus tent, bank, and barn). And rounding out the scenery are four adorable, fully three-dimensional wooden trees. Another thing to note is that the bridge is very tall, with even Chuggington trains rolling below it with plenty of room to spare.
Other Maple Landmark NameTrain sets include their Basic Train Set, a simple circle with a three-car train; the NameTrain Safari Set, a figure-eight with both an animal-watching train and five animals on wheels, and the NameTrain Skyline Train Set, which features a beautiful, red suspension bridge. If you’re looking for a Christmas-themed set, they also have a cute North Pole Village Railroad.
Dreamup Toys Wooden Train Set
Dreamup Toys makes ingenious building platforms that allow children to combine wooden train tracks and DUPLO blocks/LEGO bricks (or other compatible brands). These platforms would be a great addition to any of the train sets on this list. I’ve written about how much my son loves these block platforms in the past, plus a parent’s guide to building with them.
The Dreamup Toys Wooden Train Set features the lovely Maple Landmark/NameTrains track along with the block platforms. Note that the set does not come with DUPLO blocks, so if your child doesn’t already have those, you’ll want to check out my recommendations in my full review of the train set.
Whittle Shortline Railroad Toy Trains
I have wanted to get some of these gorgeous trains for my son for years, and thanks to Whittle Shortline Railroad, we finally have some! Whittle Shortline Railroad is a family business makes the most realistic wooden trains out there. Handcrafted in the USA, Whittle Shortline’s trains look impressively like both the real trains out on the the real railroads and the traditional electric model trains that kids rarely get to touch at train shows and grandparents’ houses. The level of detail on these trains is just amazing, and thanks to some specially designed wheels, even the longest of their large locomotives rolls neatly around the tightest curves of wooden track. If you have a child who is obsessed with real trains or model trains, if your child has a grandparent, parent, or other favorite family member who is a model train hobbyist, or if you’d just like to teach your child about real trains, you have to check these out! You can read our full review of these amazing trains here. Please note that their train sets only include the trains, so you’ll want to get some wooden tracks to go with them.
Hape Wooden Trains
I’m writing this just after examining our first set from Hape, and I’m very excited that it met and then exceeded my expectations. The Hape Railway Forest Railway Set is adorable. I love the wide variety of bushes and trees that are included, especially the apple trees and the oak trees with acorns! There are also two squirrels which my son loves, although he says his favorite features are the two green forest-y tunnels…and I have to agree with him. The layout is well-designed, all the curves are big curves and you get some long straight tracks as well, the bridge is tall enough for Thomas trains to roll beneath it (but not Chuggington trains), and for the most part, everything is pretty good quality, with the main exception being that one of the switch tracks has a very tight fit (it seems like it may be an incorrect cut on that individual track). It’s a charming set! Plus, it comes in a big, sturdy box with a handle that could be saved as storage for the set.
Another big set from them is the Hape Railway Double Loop Railway Set, which has a modern city theme, including a tunnel, bridge, station, crane, passenger train, and freight train. The Hape High & Low Railway Train Set focuses on elevated tracks and tunnels, with two high speed passenger trains zooming through a forested area.
If you’re looking for more of a starter set, the Hape Railway Figure Eight Railway Set has a classic look to it, with a three-piece train in cheerful primary colors and a couple of their cute trees.
And if you have a toddler, you’ll be pleased to know that some of their sets are recommended for that age group. The Musical Rainbow Railway Set, recommended for 18 months and up, incorporates classic toddler toys (a xylophone, tambourines, a wire bead maze, and a shape sorting puzzle) into a bright, colorful wooden train set. Each whimsical car of the train itself has a different visual surprise: a mirror car, a car that turns everything upside down when you look through it, and a car with a prismatic/kaleidoscopic lens. There is also the Hape Railway Jungle Train Journey Set, rated for two years and up, which includes a couple of elements crafted from fabric that would be an interesting sensory experience.
Another good brand to go with is Bigjigs. While not equal to Thomas and Brio in quality, their train sets are far more affordable. Additionally, they make a lot of unique and extremely clever pieces, especially when it comes to their freight cars and destinations.
Bigjigs offers quite a few interesting train sets. Their My First Train Set is quite possibly your least expensive option for a small, good-quality beginner’s train set. While it includes passenger coaches instead of freight cars, and so doesn’t offer the fun of loading and unloading freight, it does include two people and two houses. That could be more fun for some children than the freight. Their Village Train Set is an expanded version of the same theme, which is then expanded further in the Town and Country Set. And then for a very large set, check out the Freight Train Set.
Moving on from their basic sets, they also make sets in a number of fun themes. If your child loves construction vehicles as much as trains, I’d suggest taking a close look at their Construction Train Set. For a car and train fan, try the beautiful Rural Rail and Road Set. Their pink and purple Fairy Town figure-eight set is very sweet.
The Railway Station Carry Set allows you to pack up a small train layout inside of a very cool two-level train set. The Mountain Railway Set looks fun, and comes with a station we own and really like. However, I’m not sure how well tracks would stay put on the mountain. (I would probably just glue the curves to the mountain top on this one.) And then there’s the Around the World Train Set, which I desperately want. World landmarks have never looked more adorable! And the Heritage Collection Mallard Train Set looks like a beautiful set to start or encourage an interest in railroad history.
Imaginarium train sets are available at Toys-R-Us, in-store and online. Though I would rate them lower than most of my other recommended brands, you get a great level of quality in comparison to the low prices, which can go even lower if you shop sales and sign up for Toys-R-Us’ rewards program to get coupons. All of our Imaginarium train stuff has stood the test of almost three years of train play and still looks great. I also like that they offer a good range of fairly realistic trains. I’m particularly fond of their freight cars, which make great Troublesome Trucks with the addition of some Troublesome Truck face stickers.
One of my favorite Imaginarium sets is the Timber Log Spiral Set. While not as pretty as the Thomas-brand spiral set we also own, it’s functional and fun. The spiral supports can be used with straight or curved track to make any number of different elevated configurations, and it comes with a cute steam engine and two great freight cars (my son loves having the blue one for Thomas to pull).
If you’re in the market for a train table as well as a train set, take a look at the current Imaginarium train table set. We have the one from a few years ago, and while the train table has gone on from taking up space at my mom’s house to a new home, the buildings, trains, and accessories from the set, especially the roundhouse, are still useful pieces in our collection.
By the way, the layout in the picture above was created using elements from our Imaginarium train table set and the Timber Log Spiral set (and lots of different brands of track).
Ikea Wooden Trains
Ikea is perhaps your least expensive option for a first train set, and there are things to like about Ikea trains. I was happy to see two new additions to the line last fall, a suspension bridge and a turntable. However, be aware that the plastic connectors on their track are a very tight fit and don’t work easily with some other wooden train track brands. Also, their trains are very small, so some larger trains from other brands don’t fit beneath Ikea bridges.
Plan Toys Trains
I was never a fan of Plan Toys‘ wooden trains in the past. Their wooden train tracks were barely even compatible with each other sometimes, much less other train brands. However, they’ve completely changed the track now, so my hope is that they work better. Of course, now their trains have non-magnetic couplers, which means that they are not compatible with other brands of wooden trains. Plan Toys is the most eco-friendly option I’m aware of, so if that’s especially important to you, you might be interested in the small Plan Toys City Road and Rail Oval Railway, Plan Toys City Road and Rail Railway Figure 8 Set, or the large Plan Toys City Road and Rail Railway Set.
Once you have your train set picked out, you’ll want to browse our Train Play archives for lots of ideas of what to do with them! You may want to read our Guide to Wooden Train Tracks for advice on expanding upon a basic train set as well. I also recommend signing up for our email newsletter to keep up with our new train ideas and activities as we post them.
A note on safety: Wooden train sets generally involve a fair range of choking hazards, especially when you’re dealing with freight for freight cars or other accessories. There is also the possibility of a magnet coming loose, although the only time we’ve had that problem in the past three years was on a Brio freight container when the plastic square concealing a magnet came loose. (We checked all the other freight containers and none of the others seemed to have the same problem.)
Most wooden train sets are rated for age two or three and up because of these dangers. Please take this into account when buying a trains set for your children, as well as their own stage of development when it comes to putting things in their mouths. We were fortunate that the Little Engineer was beyond the mouthing stage when he was only one year old, so we were able to buy wooden trains from the start of his interest in them. Even so, I did put a number of smaller pieces away until I was sure, and I always closely supervised him with his trains.
More train guides to explore: