Grandpa Builds Train From Scratch In His Backyard, Based On 1965 ‘Popular Mechanics’ Cover

by Ileana Paules-Bronet
Ileana is a writer on the Original Content team. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

One of the many joys of being a grandparent is getting to spoil your grandkids. You’ve already done the job of parenting your children and teaching them to be good, responsible people, so now it’s your turn to just have fun with your children’s children.

Lots of grandparents like to make things for their grandkids — whether that’s a freshly cooked meal, a batch of warm cookies, a knitted sweater, or something else.

Kids always love getting gifts — homemade or purchased — from their grandparents, so it’s always a special moment when they see the present.

One grandfather decided he wanted to make something truly unique for his granddaughter, so he used advice from a 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics to build a train in his backyard.

He posted photos of the experience on Imgur, a photo sharing site, where people immediately loved it.

To see how this devoted grandpa built a DIY train from Popular Mechanics for his granddaughter, keep reading!

train wheels

This handy granddad explained:

I built a train in my backyard from scratch for my granddaughter, using readily available materials.

The train is powered by electric motors that are controlled by a custom-built computer circuit.

The project includes 275 feet of track, an engine house, and a crossing signal with fully functioning lights and bells.

After searching for options for getting a train, I ran across an article from a 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics about building a train.

Using this article as a guide, here’s the journey from start to finish for building my railroad.

train wheel

I started with the wheels. They’re made of two layers of 3/4″ plywood bolted together.

The flange is from a v-belt pulley with one of the flanges removed. This is one of the two drive wheels. There are six wheels in all.

train wheel back

Here’s the back side of the drive wheel. The pie-shaped pieces fit into the back side of the pulley so all the pieces can be bolted together like a sandwich.

Note the brass bushings that provide the bearing for the axle.

front wheels

The front wheels are mounted on steel axle rods, which in turn are mounted into pillow block bearings.

The axles are mounted on a wood carriage that swivels as an assembly as the train approaches a curved section of track.

wheel mount

The wheels are mounted to the chassis, which is cut from 3/4 plywood. Note the sprockets on the drive wheels for the chain drive (both wheels – 2 wheel drive).

chassis train

And here’s the chassis and wheel assemblies turned right-side-up. Lots more wood pieces in the background that are part of the project.

cab chassis train

Starting to put the cab on the chassis. I’m building this in my home office.

Had to ensure that the final assembly would fit through the door to get it outside.

train cab
Another perspective of the (nearly complete) cab.


train catwalk
Here I’ve added the catwalks and cradle for the boiler. Also the steam cylinders on the sides.
Note that you can see the 350 watt dc motor behind the drive wheel. There’s one motor for each side. I’ve also added the brake shoes.
train boiler
Here the boiler has been added. It sits in plywood cradles (front and rear). The boiler is a 16 gallon steel drum.
They’re hard to find, since the industry has pretty much gone to plastic containers. This drum originally contained cleaner fluid and was salvaged from my mechanic’s auto shop. 


train smokestack

Note that the smokestack has also been added. It was built from a length of 6-inch A/C duct purchased from Lowes. The top is a 10-inch to 6-inch duct reducer purchased from an HVAC supplier online.

Engine with the cow catcher on front. It took two tries to finally get all the pieces of 1 x 2 wood stock cut with the correct angles to make it look OK.


front view train
And a front view of the cow catcher.


train light box
The next step was the light box mounted to a front plate for the boiler. This was made from some scrap wood left over from a previous project.
Note the medallion on the front of the boiler plate. This is one of the spots that hold the engine identification number.


front view light
And a front view of the boiler plate and light box.


train control unit

Next step was the motor control unit. The plan was to have a pair of 12v batteries in series to deliver 24 volts to the two 350 watt dc motors. The control unit was required to be able to vary the speed of the motors. Here’s a prototype of the first version of the circuit.

The board to the right is an Arduino computer. It accepts an input (the potentiometer in the center board here) for the motor speed and converts the analog signal to the proper digital signals and sends it to the H-Bridge unit (left side), which sends the proper current to the motors. Note the radio control receiver (bottom) for optional remote control.

motor installed

Here is the motor control unit installed in the engine chassis, along with a pair of 12v batteries.

train tracks
Building the track. The track was built in sections of 8 and 10 feet and put together just like your old train set. Rails are pressure-treated deck boards ripped into thirds.
The rails are set into grooves in the 2×4 cross ties and attached with deck screws from the bottom. Curved sections were built using this template. Here you can see one of the curved sections.


cutting grooves
Cutting the grooves in the 2×4 cross ties. A router with a one inch bit was used to cut seven ties at a time. The distance between the grooves was critical to keep the train from derailing.
This was controlled by using this template to guide the router and ensure that the rail distances were accurate. It’s interesting to note that the distance between the rails has to increase a quarter of an inch for the curved sections to prevent the wheels from binding in the curves.
tracks through woods

Here is a straight section of track going through the woods where I cleared the trees for a right of way.

tracks grass

And here is the laying of a curved section of track.

Track sections were pinned to the ground to prevent shifting by driving a two foot length of half inch rebar through holes in the cross ties.

engine house sketch
I needed an engine house to protect and store the engine. Since there are no plans available that I can find, I’m on my own to design one. Here’s my initial concept that I’m aiming for.
The engine house will include additional space for storage and maintenance. So the track will enter to one side, leaving useable space for a workshop. My design is supposed to suggest that the engine house actually houses two engines. Hence the faux door to the left.
engine house build

Building the foundation around the track. I’m using 4-inch cap blocks on 5-foot centers. It’s critical to get all of the blocks level with each other to keep the framing square and level.

Note that the engine house spans the track, so there will be two doors. This way I don’t have to build a track switch.

engine house roof

Adding a Clerestory to the roof. A Clerestory is a part of the roof that projects upward so that there can be a place to put a window and permit light to enter.

Lots of the engine houses seemed to include this architectural feature, based on my Google image search of engine houses.

engine house

And the (nearly) complete engine house. All that’s left is the caulking and painting.

railroad crossing

I added a RR crossing so I could get the lawn tractor across the tracks. Of course, the crossing needs a crossing signal. The lights were 4-inch trailer stop lights.

I mounted these inside wood brackets fabricated from scrap plywood. The metal surround and visors were cut from extra roof flashing from the train house project and painted with flat black BBQ grill paint.

rr lights
The crossing signal lights are powered by a 12 volt battery. There is another Arduino computer controlling the lights. The computer is linked to an ultrasonic sensor (lower right component). This sensor sends out ultrasonic sound waves and listens for a reflected wave.
When the train gets within a few feet, the sensor reports this back to the computer, which wakes up and controls the relays (upper right, in blue). The relays, in turn, send alternating signals to the two lights, causing them to flash.
final train

How incredible is the final product? This is such a stunning gift for a grandfather to give to his granddaughter!

To learn more about this project, visit his website!

If you’re blown away by this stunning train, please SHARE this article with your friends and family!