A model train coursing around a Christmas tree is now as symbolic of the season as wreaths, candy canes and mistletoe, but for a first timer, a Christmas train can be a little intimidating. With a little background knowledge, a little early decision making and a little effort, most people can add this element to their annual tradition. Time, cost and complexity range depending on your personal vision, but with a Christmas tree train, it is best to keep things simple.
Selecting Your Train Set
Measure your available area and make sure you will have at least 3 feet of radial distance from the center of the tree when it is in position.
Decide on a proper scale for your train to fit the available area. The train gauge (i.e., scale) should be no larger than G (1:22.5) and no smaller than HO (1:87). A popular intermediate scale is O gauge (1:48).
Select a train set that will fit in the display area that includes all of the following: at least 16 feet of interlocking sectional tracks on a plastic rail bed, an engine, no more than four rail cars, connecting wires and a power pack.
Preparing the Base
Measure and cut a square plywood base to fit the area you have available, making sure it is large enough to accommodate the track. Use two sheets fastened with hinges or flat metal braces as necessary.
Put buffer pads on the bottom of the plywood if the set will be on a floor without carpeting to protect the finish.
If you plan to paint your base green or white, this should be done before the next steps.
Center the tree stand (without the tree) on the plywood and mark the outline with a pencil for visual reference.
Assembling the Track and Testing the Train
Assemble the track on the plywood and mark the edges with a pencil for reference.
Make sure your electrical connector track is in an accessible position with the wire hookups facing the outer rim of the track circle.
Connect the power pack to the track as directed by the instructions and test the flow of current using the model engine. Make sure it can circle the track at half speed without hitting a bump or falling off.
Fasten the track to the plywood base with rail nails (available at hobby stores) and a tacking hammer for a permanent fix and long term storage. Use poster tack to hold it in place if you plan to disassemble the track at the end of the season.
Test the train one more time before putting the tree in place and decorating.
The lower branches of your tree will need to be trimmed up to allow enough room for the train to circle as well.
The temptation may be to get a big train with lots of buildings, switches, figures and lights, but under a Christmas tree, limited space makes this impractical.
For the same reasons, a Christmas train should be limited to a single engine and four cars.
If your train set comes with securely locking tracks, you can avoid using plywood as long as the track will stay steady (for example, on a hard wood floor). Carpeting can create problems.
If your train wobbles or comes off the track easily, disassemble the rail cars and tape down rolls of pennies or similar weights inside to keep pressure on the track.
Experiment with speed, but remember, a train flying around the track will also fly right off.
If children will be operating the train, very young kids may have more success with a larger train gauge like 0 or G. It will be easier for them to hook the cars and place them on the track.
While the voltage of a train power pack is not great enough to cause real damage, you should use a watering can with a long spout if you are using a live or cut tree. Water can damage the train and cause a short.