Christmas Toys: Make a Handmade Circus Animal Train Set

MOTHER's Workshop shares instructions for a unique children's gift: a handmade circus animal train. Includes downloadable train construction details, circus animals construction details and a project materials list.

circus train

A wooden circus train for your child and the child in all of us. See the text for a link to the downloadable construction details.


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You may have more fun making this handmade circus animal train set than the kids will playing with it. 

My father had a small workshop in the basement for as long as I can remember. He loved to putter and make things. He built a lot of the furniture in the house and was always making things for the kitchen to help mother. For us kids, he made toys for Christmas and birthdays. If the door to the basement was locked, we knew he was working on something for us.

My children still play with some of the toys my father made. Handmade to me means made with love. My favorite toy to this day is the model-pond yacht; my sister has the six-car circus train on her mantle. What could be more exciting to a child than a steam locomotive? Well, maybe a circus. And the combination of the two, a handmade circus animal train set? Well, that's got to be some powerful magic. I know our childhood imaginations went on a lot of train trips.

The building of the engine, tender (coal-car), and circus cars is pretty straightforward. Cut out the individual pieces and glue them together!

See train construction details.

See circus animals construction details.

There are only a few assembly hints I'd like to pass along.

1. Glue all the pieces together with a good quality carpenter's adhesive using brads (small finish nails) to hold everything in place until the glue sets.

2. Cut the cowcatcher to its round shape and finish sharpening it with a wood rasp (file) or rough sandpaper.

3. When drilling the holes for the cage bars, clamp (or temporarily nail) the top and bottom together and drill both holes at the same time. Put a piece of tape around the drill bit 5/8 inch from the tip to serve as a drilling depth gauge. This way all the holes will line up and be the same depth. Cut all of the bars (3/16 inch dowels) to the same length (4 inches). When you assemble everything, you'll get a perpendicular, aligned fit.

4. Prime and paint everything in bright circus colors using non-toxic paint (children like to chew on the darnedest things).

5. The wheels for the engine are two layers of 1/4 inch plywood glued together. Cut the wheels from plywood, or cut sections off of a dowel of the proper diameter. If you use a dowel for the car wheel make them 3/4 inches wide. It's surprising how many people will throw a broom away when the bristles wear out; they're throwing away a perfectly good $3 dowel.

6. You can vary any of the dimensions you want as long as the adjoining piece has been dimensionally corrected to fit. Let's say you have a scrap piece of 3/8 inch plywood instead of 1/4 inch. By all means, use it! Just compensate for that extra 1/8 inch.

7. All patterns are laid out on a grid of one-inch squares.

8. When you cut around the animals, leave the cross-hatch area intact.

9. An easy way to get all the patterns to scale is to take the pages to a copy center and have them inch-blow-up inch the patterns so the squares are exactly 1 inch by 1 inch. Then all you have to do is trace and cut out the pieces. At the copy center, also have them make several copies of the cage top/bottom. Glue (rubber cement) this to the wood. Then cut and drill following the pattern. When you're done, simply peel the paper off. You can do this with the animal patterns too.

10. Attach all wheels using a 1 1/4 inch #6 screw with washer for the cars and a 1 1/2 inch #6 screw with washer for the engine.

11. Align and screw in cup hooks for car couplings.

Circus Animal Train Materials List
One 1/4 sheet of 1/4 inch plywood
Ten cup hooks
Seven 1 1/2 inch #6 screws
Sixteen 1 1/4 inch #6 screws
One 2 inch by 3 inch wood dowel (per animal car)
One 3/16 inch by 57 inch wood dowel (per animal car)
One thread spool (or 3/4 inch by 1 inch dowel) (smoke stack)
One length of 3/4 inch by 3 inch by 36 inch fir wood stock (car bases)
One tube of carpenter's glue
One pint of non-toxic primer
Non-toxic paint in circus colors

david hancock
11/28/2012 4:58:30 PM

Also, its, not

david hancock
11/28/2012 4:54:29 PM

Here is a link to the train and animals in, The cutots are in PDF form. When printing, set each page at 100% so that they copy at the same size, If you need to enlarge them or resize them. Print them out, once printed, rescan them into your computer. Go to Start, Programs, Accessories, Paint. Open Paint. Go to File, Open, (find the copies that you just Scanned & saved, open them one at a time, they should open within the Paint program. If you cut the train parts out individully and scanned, you can scan each part of the train to the size you want it up to 8 1/2 x 11, if not, the train as a whole will have to fit on that one piece of paper. You resize the train by going to word Image, Resize/Skew. If you want the train larger, change the numbers as much as you want at a time, say you want it twice as large, put 200 in each box. say you want it one and a half to,es latger, put 150 in each box and click OK, it will be bigger,

simon says
11/10/2012 9:32:23 PM

Just a note: I would stay away from the Cup Hooks used to couple the cars together. They can be unscrewed enen in Oak wood. Use a pin and circle coupler agangement. You will have to redesign the ends but worth it. I have been making wooden toys for over 30 years and do craft fairs and some wholesale. Regards, LarryC

paul keen
12/1/2010 1:56:34 PM

I found larger images back in March of this year, in an Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format. There are two separate Acrobat documents - one for the train, and the other for the cars. The train one, called TrainSchematic.pdf, has the dimensions for the train and cars in a much-more readable (hopefully large enough) format (I tried viewing them through my image viewer {ACDsee} at 400%, and they were readable to me); the cars document, called TrainSchematicAnimals.pdf, has the elephant, camel, giraffe, and the rest of the details for the cars. Hopefully with these 2 documents, they "should" be large enough so we can make out the numbers for the measurements. How can I upload these 2 files to this website? Or...if that doesn't (won't) work, I can e-mail them to anyone who is interested. And (as you may have seen on other websites), if you do not have a reader for Adobe Acrobat .pdf files, Adobe's website has a free reader that you can download. I think it's a good idea to print out the original document from this website and keep it along with the plans, as the instructions for building this train are on this website. The Acrobat files only have the drawings with the dimensions. Hope this helps someone :) This really looks like it would be a cute train when finished. Hopefully I can make one for my 3 precious granddaughters who live in the Seattle area. I'm in the Los Angeles area, and I think the best I can do this year is send it to them for Christmas. Paul Keen

12/1/2010 12:03:16 PM

It seems others have stated the image even when enlarged is unreadable. Since 2008. This was just sent out in email to me an hour ago, and is still too small to be legible when enlarged.

sophie berry_1
1/17/2009 10:56:55 PM

what is the link to enlarge the circus train drawings please. sophie.

judy salter
12/11/2008 6:18:18 PM

Thanks for the link to enlarge the drawing. I will get my husband to the workshop this weekend! Best wishes for the holidays.

glen kadelbach
11/18/2008 9:13:20 PM

Hi, Please email me the image. Too small to see. Would like to build one for my 3 yr old. He loves trains. Thanks, Glen

judy salter
11/15/2008 3:37:26 PM

I would love to make this, but no amount of enlarging renders the plans workable. Can you please add this back onto your web site in a usable form? Christmas is a-comin! Thanks

ramona viera
10/17/2008 12:22:53 PM

my grandson and i looked for hours for the toy train plans he wanted and yours look simple and fun but sooooooooooo small! i'm a beginner. can i get something bigger? i'm retired and my pastime is building bird houses and toys for my grandkids. Mona

1/7/2008 1:35:39 AM

The plan is so small it's unreadable.