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How to Make a Train Coffee Table

This train coffee table was made by Mike Moon, from his own plans.

A coffee table makes an ideal enclosed layout for an N-scale train. Placed against the wall, with an overstuffed armchair on each side, and a sofa facing the table, the layout becomes an instant conversation starter. A built-in shelf unit above the table becomes a bridge to a second layout traveling up a ledge and around the room. Recessed controls keep the transformer out of sight. The table itself can be constructed of any desired hardwood.

Lay the 2-inch by 4-inch side and end boards on the 2-inch edge in a box shape, with a 2-inch by 2-inch space between ends and sides at the corners for the leg boards. Place one leg board upright in each corner, flush with the end and side pieces.

Use a carpenter's pencil to draw a line across each leg where it meets each end and side piece. Cut 1-inch mortises in adjoining sides of each leg board. Cut tenons on the end of each side and end piece to fit the mortises (see Tips).

Lay the side, end and leg boards in place again. Beginning at one corner at a time, brush the tenons of each board with carpenter's glue. Allow glue to dry until tacky. Stick the tenon into a mortise and press firmly.

Repeat until all the tenons have been glued into each mortise, between the side pieces and the end pieces. You should now have a coffee table frame, held together with carpenter's glue. Leave table frame face down, legs in the air.

Apply carpenter's glue to two of the triangular sides of each support block. Allow glue to dry until tacky. Butt the blocks into each corner and press firmly to get a solid glue seal.

Mark screw hole positions as shown in the drawing which accompanies this step. Drill the holes at an angle into each side of the corner support block. Countersink all the holes and attach the blocks using 1 1/2-inch wood screws.

Make a 1/2-inch deep rabbet cut all the way around the inside perimeter of the table frame while table is upside-down (see Tips). This rabbet cut will provide support for the table bottom. Apply carpenter's glue along the rabbet cut for the table bottom. Press table bottom sheet into place.

Attach the table bottom to the table frame using 1-inch wood screws placed every 4 inches around the perimeter of the table frame. Turn table upright to stand on its legs.

Use a router to cut a 1/2 inch deep rabbet cut along the inside perimeter of the open table frame, including the corners of each leg. This rabbet cut, along with the four triangular corner supports, will support the glass tabletop sheet.

Sand the entire table using coarse, medium, fine and extra fine sandpaper. Finish the table with several coats of clear acrylic deck treatment, allowing to dry for 24 hours between coats.

Build the train layout as desired. Cover the inside of the table surface with a mixture of grass seed, sand, pebbles, fine gravel, small rocks, sisal fiber trees and shrubs, and whatever other landscape features you desire. Include a water feature, such as a stream or pond. Make a bridge over the stream if desired. Create tunnels using an arch of plastic canvas, covered with papier mache. Place your N-scale train on the tracks. Attach the transformer underneath the tabletop, with the controls facing the aspiring engineer.

Things You'll Need:

  • Four 2-inch by 2-inch by 24-inch maple boards
  • Two 2-inch by 4-inch by 22-inch maple boards
  • Two 2-inch by 4-inch by 46-inch maple boards
  • Carpenter's glue
  • Carpenter's pencil
  • Four 2-inch by 2-inch by 2-inch by 3 1/2-inch long triangular maple corner support blocks
  • 21-inch by 44-inch sheet of beveled-edge glass for table top
  • 21-inch by 44-inch sheet of sanded plywood for table bottom
  • Power drill, 1/8-inch diameter bit,
  • 1/4 --inch diameter bit, countersink bit
  • Router
  • Coarse, medium, fine and extra fine sandpaper
  • Disk sander
  • 1 box of 1 1/2-inch brass wood screws
  • 1 box of 1-inch brass wood screws
  • N-scale train
  • N-scale tracks, transformer
  • Clear acrylic deck coating


Mortises are square, rectangular or oval-shaped grooves cut into the wood to accept tenons. Tenons are square, rectangular or oval-shaped projections at the end of a piece of wood, shaped to fit into a mortise and form a mortise joint. Mortises are cut into the wood using a pair of drilled holes to a given depth, which are then connected by filing and sanding out the material inside the dimensions of the hole needed to accept the tenon. A dado cut is a rectangular groove along the length of a board, to provide support for another board as part of a joint. A rabbet is a dado cut along the edge of the board, leaving one side of the dado open. Rabbets fit into dado cuts to make drawers and shelves. This article assumes that the reader is a moderately-experienced wood worker who knows the correct and safe use of power tools, hand tools and safety equipment. This article also assumes that the reader knows how to make mortise and tenon joints, rabbet cuts and dados and has the appropriate tools available with which to do so.

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