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Wood Trains

Articles by
Dave Pecota

Wooden Track Trains – a Brief History

For today’s children, the introduction to wooden track railroading likely starts with Thomas the Tank Engine … happily duplicating his TV adventures on the playroom floor.  Along with Thomas, wood trains of all types and a dizzying variety of playsets and accessories are widely available.  Most brands of modern wooden track trains work harmoniously with the trains and track of almost every other brand ... and in many cases, with their vintage brethren, too.  In the highly competitive toy world, this cross-brand compatibility is rather surprising.

However, we can’t really give Thomas and his friends the credit for this compatibility.  Undoubtedly, we must attribute the lion’s share of the credit to two ingenious citizens of Skaneateles NY … Marshal Hart Larrabee II and his wife Elizabeth.

Marshal Larrabee was a graduate of Wharton School in 1931, but was struck down with tuberculosis a year later.  During his lengthy recuperation, he took up woodworking to occupy the long days.  After making a variety of items, he asked his wife what he should make next.  (He had already made large toy trains that children dragged across floors with pull-strings.)

Prophetically, Elizabeth said, “make a little train that a child will hold in his hand”.

So Marshal made “little” trains.  He also devised wooden track sections, with grooves about 1 ¼ inches apart, for the trains to travel in.  Different layouts could be made by putting together various combinations of straight and curved track.  Blocks were used for buildings and for track supports to make bridges.

Larrabee’s train sets became instantly popular with family and friends.  He soon became convinced that the sets could become a financial success.  While traveling throughout the US in the late 1930’s, he began a sales promotion effort for his little trains.  By 1941, he had received a US patent for his train design ... and had landed his first major commercial customer, Marshal Fields Department Stores in Chicago.  He formally started his company (named Skaneateles Handicrafters) in a converted marine engine machine shop.     

With the postwar sales success of Larrabee’s expanding toy product line, educators recognized that SH-style playsets helped to stimulate a child’s imagination and creativity … while also developing problem-solving and motor skills.  Wooden track playsets also became very popular in group settings such as pre-schools, church schools and daycare centers.  The sets were safe and durable, and helped to develop socialization and team-building skills during group play.

The 1950’s saw the arrival of grooved track playsets from other toymakers such as Keystone Manufacturing Co, the Jack Built Toy Co and BRIO (Sweden).  These companies also used the identical 1 ¼ inch groove size (gauge) for their track.  Early in the 1960’s, wooden train sets from Micki Leksaker (Sweden) and two German toy companies Eichhorn and Hermann Rosberg (HEROS) had emerged.  The genre’ of the wooden train with a “standard” track gauge was now firmly established in the toy world.

By the late 1960’s, two component innovations … “peg & hole” track connectors and magnetic train couplers … had been adopted by nearly every manufacturer.  A subtle but critical feature of the peg & hole track is the ability to provide a little “wiggle room” in the track connections.  Children did not have to assemble their track layouts in a totally precise manner.  They could “bend” the track layout connections a bit to suit their needs.  However, the track sections would still remain firmly connected.  Likewise, magnetic disk train couplers provided a safe, strong and flexible linkage between railcars without the need for metal hooks.  (Skaneateles Handicrafters was the only notable exception to the adoption of these virtually universal train and track features.)

The sales of wooden track trains chugged along nicely through the 1970’s and 80’s.  During this time, the popularity of the brightly colored BRIO trains made this Swedish manufacturer the best-known maker of wooden trains worldwide.  Most other trains were judged as to whether or not they were “BRIO-compatible”. 

In the early 1990’s, wooden versions of Thomas the Tank Engine … the hero of children’s books and TV … exploded onto the marketplace.  Seemingly every child wanted Thomas and his friends on their train layout.  And the kids didn’t want just one a two different trains … they wanted scores of different train “personalities”.  Names like James, Percy, Gordon and Henry became pervasive in the daily conversations of kids all over the world.  Children went from being wood train “operators” into becoming wood train “collectors”.  Toymakers without a license to make Thomas products responded with extensive lines of creatively distinctive trains … from vintage steam engines and hard-working diesels to alpine ski lift gondolas and sleek “bullet trains”.   Some trains were even motorized … enabling them to chug along on their own power as long as the batteries held out.

The 90’s also saw the inexorable march of Asian-made toys (like most Thomas products) into the marketplace.  Price competition became almost as important as creative design.  Even BRIO went through a painful reorganization (few trains now have the “Made in Sweden” sticker).  However, kids will continue to love these imagination-driven train sets … regardless of their manufacturing origin.


From a collector’s viewpoint, there is something very appealing about the simplistic yet artful designs of these toys and the heirloom feel of the hardwoods used.  These little trains remind us of simpler and more innocent times.  On a personal level, these trains were critical to the childhood progress of my developmentally disabled son.  Based on recent observations, there seems to be a growing collector appreciation of these toys.  Vintage train sets in excellent condition … particularly with their original packaging … are becoming more elusive and a bit more “pricey”.  If you have any questions or comments, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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Keep your wheels in the grooves!