Assembly Plan

LEGO Train Display Shelf

Design and Web Graphics by: David K. Z. Harris
11/29/98 dkzh

First Thing: These pages are NOT sponsored or endorsed by the LEGO companies. They are the creation of an enthusiast of LEGO bricks. (The official LEGO home page is

Design Notes:

I wanted to build a display shelf for some of my custom Rolling Stock. However, one of my wagons is really a chain of three bodies (and four wheel sets) between a set of couplers, and it stretches nearly 36" long. The cost of putting a bunch of straight track on a shelf would be prohibitive. But, I thought I could accomplish the same advantage (keeping the trains from falling off of the shelf during minor earthquakes ;-) if I could cut a trough in the shelf material, to let the shelf become the rails.

Critical Measurements

The width of most Skillsaw or Table Saw blades is wide enough to allow the long flanges of the train wheels to sit within the gap left by the blade. If your saw blades are really thin, you may need to make two passes for each slot, to ensure that they are "wide enough, but not too wide."

The cut for each slot needs to be at least 3/16" deep, to ensure that the bottom of the gap doesn't cause the wheels to develop a flat edge.

The width between the two cuts is also a crucial measurement. If the cuts are too far apart, one wheel may fall too far into the gap, causing the displayed wagon to lean badly. If the cuts are too close together, you won't be able to get the wheels into the slots at the same time.

(Less critical is the width of your train cars! If you have some wide cars, you will need to make sure that you cut the slots on your shelves far enough away from the backboard, so your wide cars will fit.)

Recommended Tools

Building one of these shelves is a simple project, requiring the use of just a few tools. The tools listed below will help make the tasks easier.

  • A large carpenters square (more than 12" per side, 24" x 16" is preferred)
  • A table saw (the table should have at least 18" reach on the cutting guide)
    • If you don't have a table saw, you can use a radial saw, carefully!
  • A miter saw (A power miter saw will make the work go quickly!)
  • An electric or pneumatic "brad gun"
    • You can use a hammer for this project, as there will only be 75-100 nails
  • Long carpenters clamps (to help build the frames)
  • Smaller carpenter clamps, for joining frames and table tops together
  • There are even special clamps for making 90-degree corners!
  • A router, with flush and round-over bits (to help clean up edges)
    • If you don't have a router, a carpenters plane could be used
  • A small finish sander, with lots of 100 and 220 grit paper (to help clean up surfaces)

Material Requirements

1/8" backboard (Backing for the shelf, also adds strength).

  • one 2' x 4' sheet (or adjust size to fit your own needs).

1" x 4" (Shelf sides, top, and shelves).

  • three 8'-lengths of 1" x 4" for a 2' x 4' display, with 4 shelves.

Wood Glue. You may also want to buy some "acid brushes", or something else to spread the glue, instead of your fingers.

Finishing Nails ("brads").

  • 1" long for nailing the 1" x 4" to 1" x 4". Get 40 to start with, for a 2' x 4' shelf.
  • .75" long, for nailing the backboard to the 1" x 4" material.

My Prototype

My sample could have been 4' wide, but that seemed too wide for me. On the other hand, I needed it to be at least 34" wide, between the left and right sides. You can see a picture of the prototype with my table parts (note that the backboard is 2' x 4' and needs to be trimmed), or of the prototype with train cars on the shelf (the series of red and yellow bodies on the lower shelf are 'one car', my Freight Container Car), or of the prototype without train cars (standing on end, so you can (barely) see the slots in the shelves).

The 38.5" measurement was almost arbitrary. I'd invite you to think about how many cars you want to display, and set them out on table, or some straight track, and see how many shelves you might need.

You should also consider the height of the cars that you wish to display, to make sure that you have enough vertical room on some of the shelves. (Remember that you also need 3/16" of additional vertical space, so you can get the wheels into the slots on the shelves.)

The dimensions for my prototype are shown here.

Shelves 1, 2, 3, and 4 have slots cut into them, while shelf number 5 does not.

On my first version, I varied the vertical space between the shelves. The space between shelves 1 and 2 was 5.25".

The space between shelves 2 and three, and between 3 and 4 were both 4.75".

This left a space of 6.5" between shelves 4 and 5.

Construction Tip: While screws and nails make strong connections, a well-glued joint is stronger. After you test-fit you parts without glue, you should apply the glue, and then use clamps, screws, or nails to hold the joint together while the glue dries.

Making a shelf

The width of a shelf, and the number of shelves, and the vertical separation of shelves are design changes that can be made by the builder. But the critical measurements are the things that will make or break this project.

The slots for the train wheels are the things are what will make or break this project. It will be easier if you can use a table saw, to make uniform depth cuts and straight lines.

I found that you need at least 3/4" (0.75") between the backboard, and the edge of the first cut. Remember that the cut needs to be between 3/16" to 1/4" deep. (If you have wide cars, make sure that you leave extra room!)

If you have a thin blade, then you should consider making the first cuts for ALL of your shelves before you change the blade position for the second pass.

Once you have made the cut(s) for the first slot on all of your shelves, you need to make the cut(s) for the second slot.

The critical measurement is an "outside edge-to-outside edge" measurement. Use 1-15/32". Don't exceed 1-1/2"!

If you are using 1" x 4" stock for the shelves, you will find that you have more than 0.75" outside the other slot. You should make sure to install your shelves with the same sides facing the backboard.

This is a good time to mention the height between shelves again. Find your tallest cars and engines, and make sure that you will have space to get them in and out.

Mark the sides of the display, so that you know where the shelves are attached. Use these marks to draw lines on the back of the backboard, so you can nail through to the shelves. (Be careful not to nail through the slots!)

If you have any 'corner clamps', this would be an ideal project to use them. I've nailed through the upright sides into the shelves, making sure that the shelves are square. Finally, you'll want to nail through the backboard into the shelves, to provide additional strength. (Don't forget the glue!)

I haven't painted my display, or used any clear finishes. I was worried that some of the paint, or varnish, might stick to the wheels, and cause a bumpy ride, or get transferred to the track and cause the engines trouble.

I've also though about putting a plexiglass front window, attached by hinges, to keep cars on the shelf in an earthquake. If I have a wood cover, or a plexiglass window, I could also put some foam rubber in between the cars and the cover, and make this a basic shipping container, for taking cars on road trips. It isn't very space-efficient, but I could easily attach a handle to the top of the top shelf. :-)

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Copyright 1998-99, David K. Z. Harris, N6UOW
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