If you live near Seattle, you can see and play with this train table at the United Northwest Model Railroad Club’s annual model railroad show coming up this coming weekend, February 2nd and 3rd, 2013.
There’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing something you know will thrill someone you love before your loved one sees it. That moment of anticipation, where you hold your tongue and wait for the joy to spark on its own, seems to magnify the moment and give it the significance it deserves.
That’s exactly what I felt as we came around the corner at the Pacific Science Center’s model railroad show last year and saw the wTrak train table. At the time, I would have called it the coolest train table ever, but when we went back this year, they had made it even cooler. I’ll show you the new stuff, but first I’ll try to put words to just exactly how cool these train tables are.
wTrak isn’t a brand, it’s a modular standard for wood track tables. What that means is that you can’t buy a table, but there are designs to build a number of modules, small train tables with tracks that come right up to the edges at standard points, so that the little tables can be put together in seemingly endless configurations to make bigger tables. End pieces like the one below cap things off and send the trains around and back down the table. I didn’t get any good pictures this year that show how big and impressive the table is as a whole, but there are photos of the layouts from several train shows on their website.
While it could certainly be used to create an awesome in-home train table, the system is designed with larger setups in mind, where many children will be playing at once. The modular nature of the tables allows several different families in a neighborhood or members of a model train club to build their own small set of tables and combine them at bigger events. (There are many thoughts on different applications of this standard, from railroad clubs to community and school groups to private homes, on their website.)
My husband and I have spent a lot of time watching the Little Engineer play on these tables, and so we’ve had a good amount of time to talk to Tom Stephenson, the designer of the system, and his wife. Between talking to them and watching my son play, I have a deep appreciation not only for the beauty and fun of these designs, but the amount of thought that went into making them practical, safe, and interesting. For me, they epitomize what is so wonderful about the combination of classic wooden trains and growing brains.
Moreover, they model creativity and the maker spirit to the children who play with them. When we first encountered the wTrak table, I was sad that I couldn’t just buy one of my own (never mind the fact that I probably couldn’t have afforded it if they were for sale). But now I really like the fact that you can’t buy one, because if we ever do build one (I have my heart set on the mountain tunnel module, even if it’s as a coffee table in my living room decades from now), the Little Engineer will get to watch us do it, and maybe even help a little. More than that, there’s something about the tables that exudes all kinds of authenticity. Especially with the new freight cars — we’ll get to those soon — there’s something real about rolling a train down these tracks that the commercial wooden railway companies can’t offer. I suspect the kids pick up on that vibe, even when they don’t know the story behind the awesome train table they’re playing with.
Now, let’s look at some of the features on the table. Check out the turntable:
It’s difficult see because the Little Engineer’s arm is in the way, but it’s an X shape, with one stroke longer than the other. Completely different from the ubiquitous circular turntable. In turn, the children play with it in a completely different way. Those circular tables seem to be interesting enough to most kids as it is, but I loved watching the wheels turn in the Little Engineer’s mind as he worked out where his train could go, and what he wanted to do about that. I especially like that you can fit an engine plus a few cars on the longer line of the X.
Here’s the entrance to that mountain tunnel I mentioned before, and the beautiful canyon next door:
Here’s Sir Handel coming out from under those bridges crossing the canyon:
Something about his expression made me want to call him “poor Sir Handel”, but what wooden train wouldn’t be thrilled to traverse this railroad?
Here’s the urban area of the track:
Skyscrapers tower above roadways, and you can see one of the two side-by-side subway tracks peeking out from beneath the surface. Yes, that’s right, a subway in wooden train table.
One of the new additions to the table are these boxcars and tanker cars:
They started out as blank wooden cars. Photographs were glued to the box cars:
The tankers were painted and stamped:
(If you’re interested in making your own realistic wood rolling stock, you can download the images used for the box cars, get pointed toward the fonts used to make the stamps for the tanker cars, and read some instructions on applying them from the wTrak website. We’ve bought the unpainted cars at Trains Galore in the past, but the price has gone up since then, so you might want to check for them on eBay.)
These freight cars looked so realistic, and as you can see, the kids were very tempted to make longer trains than the amount of traffic at the table could allow:
We’ll see if “Yardmaster Tom”, as the Little Engineer has taken to calling him, takes my suggestion next time and walks around with a tape measurer to check if the engineers’ trains are “regulation length” or not. Official-sounding rules and regulations are pretty much the only way mine will happily shorten his train.
They had also added these cool tanks, one each for olive oil, syrup, and molasses, these equally cool trees, and carpet patches to suggest scenery.
But even with all the new eye candy on and around the track, my favorite thing to note the changes in was my own son. Last year, while the Little Engineer certainly did roll trains around the tracks, he was still heavily into the “collector” phase of his train obsession. He was delighted to see so many engines he had only seen in back issues of the Thomas Wooden Railway Yearbook. He would go to the tub holding the trains that weren’t in use, clutch five or six of them to his chest, and bounce on his toes back to line them up on the table (a habit that earned him the nickname “Tippy Toes”). Then he’d leave to get more, sometimes returning to the momentary frustration of finding that Tom had come along behind him and, not knowing why there were trains lined up between the tracks, returned them to the tub.
This year, the Little Engineer was very determined to run his ever-growing train along the track all the way around the long, long table. Over, and over, and over. It was interesting to see the kids trying to negotiate their way past each other, now that my own child was capable of negotiating (sometimes more diplomatically than other times). He also became very fast at running between the table and the tub of unclaimed trains once he realized that preschool rules applied to the trains, and if he took his hands off them for long, some other engineer might take over his shift. He also found the loose tracks that join up the tracks between the individual modules. Fortunately, he put them back every time after he pulled them out to study them.
It makes me wonder what I’ll be watching at the science center train show next year. Because even if we aren’t playing so much with our own trains as much by that point (I have to be ever aware of that possibility), I’m pretty sure the wTrak table will still be just as exciting as it always is.
You can learn more about how these train tables are made and purchase a book with the plans to build your own at wTrak’s website. Even if you don’t have the skill or the means to build one of your own, the plans are worth looking at to learn new ways to put wooden track together (check out the large gallery of pictures of train layouts that came before the wTrak project, when their own sons were still playing trains). We’ve been very inspired since coming home from the train show to make our own scenery for our train layout, so we’ll have some examples of that up on the blog soon.