BRIO Wooden Railway Blog

Subscribe to the RSS feed.

  • Building a river

    My most recent layout featured a river running through the center of one of the tables, constructed from standard 12"x12" scrapbook cardstock. Here's how you can build your own.

    Acquire your cardstock squares

    In the U.S., the standard scrapbook cardstock size is a 12" square, but the exact size doesn't really matter so long as it's large (at least 8 inches) and roughly square in shape. U.S. cardstock squares are actually a little longer in one direction to accommodate the barcode label and that excess length is trimmed away with a paper cutter.

    The more squares you have the more flexibility you'll have in your river shape so get more than you think you need. Each square is a foot long, but youll need some overlap to ensure a seemless river. A good rule of thumb is to have 25% more length in cardstock than you need on your table.

    Make sure your cardstock has the same color or pattern on both sides. You'll have more flexibility in forming your river if you can flip the pieces over.

    Cut your squares in half

    Divide each cardstock square roughly in half using a wavy cut. The center cut will become your shoreline. Experiment both with center-to-center cuts and with offset cuts so that you have pieces that can both widen and narrow your river.

    Consider having your tiles hot laminated for durability.

    Arrange your river tiles

    The straight edges should be in the center of the river and the wavy cuts should be on the outside. Overlap the pieces as needed to sensure a smooth shoreline.

    Here's what the above example looks like in a layout:

    Experiment with rotating some of the pieces, as well as having more overlap, in order to give you more options on shaping your river. As you can see in the layout photo below, I made use of angled tiles.


  • December'14 Layout

    This layout is one that I finished over the holidays, though I'd been tinkering with the design on and off for the past couple of months. I had three primary design goals:

    1. Design the layout specifically for battery engines. This meant using mechanical switches for the primary track switches and graded supports in place of traditional ramp tracks.
    2. Include a full amusement park, assembled from the new #33730 Roller Coaster Set and the vintage #33220 Amusement Park and #33221 Merry-go-round sets.
    3. Have a river running through the center of the layout, or at least a large part of the layout, instead of placing the water along an edge.

    The river was formed from standard 12"x12" scrapbooking cardstock. Each square was cut in half roughly down the middle with a wavy pattern, giving me two shorelines per sheet that were arranged in a winding path. To create the bend, I joined two paths at an angle and used circles to smooth out the joint.

    The real challenge was the roller coaster because its large footprint threatened to eat up valuable space that I needed for track. I solved this problem by overlapping the two so that trains passed underneath the coaster.

    The town is created from three generations of the Town set: the mid-60's version with two wide skyscrapers, the 70's version with one wide skyscraper and the first generation wooden trees, and the 80's version with the taller and thinner skyscraper that most people are familiar with.

    The track plan is shown below (click to enlarge).

    Track Plan

  • Climbing hills with battery engines

    BRIO's battery engines, especially those that run on a single battery and have only two drive wheels, are not very good at climbing hills. A single engine on its own can probably manage to climb a ramp track (type N or N1), but attach a load to one of these engines and it will start to struggle. As the video below shows, attaching multiple cars to an engine all but guarantees that it will bind up on the ascent.

    Notice that even the 4WD Rechargeable Engine struggles here and in fact does worse than the Freight Battery Engine. What happens is the flexible wheel base for this engine allows for two of the drive wheels to separate from the track on the ascent. Because the engine is much heavier than the standard battery engines the loss of two drive wheels stops it in its tracks. The Freight Battery Engine is actually a nice little performer, but with three loads it needs a boost to clear the hill.

    So what do you do if you want to run these smaller battery engines in a layout that makes use of bridges or other multi-level track and accessories? The answer is to use the #33354 Graded Supports. As shown in this video, the gentler slope makes climbing hills a much easier task.

    Unfortuantely, BRIO retired the graded supports back in 1998 so you must either find them used or opt for 3rd party equivalents such as the Jesse's Toolbox Graduated Riser set. I like BRIO's risers because they are all one-step risers, so you have significant flexibility in how you use them. You can also use the graded supports that were made for the Thomas Wooden Railway system, though be aware that you cannot mix Thomas and BRIO risers in the same stack as they have different widths. The Thomas risers were also retired several years ago, but this does provide you with more options on the used market.

    Graded supports do require more space than a single ramp track, however. But, you don't have to ascend in one-step increments and I've found that two-step increments along a piece of A track is a reasonable incline and that's what I use in the video above. The standard BRIO riser is equal to six graded risers.

    Note that I offset the riser at the top of the hill to place it under the peg connector rather than under the joint.

    This prevents the peg from sticking up significantly above the track level and accidentally tripping the autostop switch on the engines.

  • More paper experiments

    I picked up some more cardstock in a variety of colors and patterns, some of which are shown below.


    I'm fiddling with different ideas for representing land and ground cover in layouts. The light green stripe and grid patterns are possibilities for farm land, and the dark green with its irregular pattern might work there as well. I have some lighter, solid greens that I am considering in small patches to make parks, or to use for the ground around lakes and ponds. The solid browns and tans could be used to represent dirt, perhaps as shorelines or in industrial areas.

    The black and white textured paper is sort of a wildcard in that I don't quite know what I want to do with it, but envision it as a way of representing gravel as-is, or sanded lightly (the paper is designed for that) to become a faded blacktop.

  • Why use mechanical switches?

    The standard BRIO switch is the curved switch track and it comes in two basic configurations: the traditional wooden track types L and M sold in pairs as #33346, and the mechanical switch track types L1 and M1 sold in pairs as #33344. The mechanical switches cost twice as much as the traditional track if bought new, but of course BRIO track can often be had for pennies on the dollar if bought used on eBay making the mechanical switches even more expensive by comparison. There are simply far fewer used mechanical switches for sale, either in lots or by themselves, where as the basic switching track is pretty much everywhere. So why buy mechanical switches when they cost so much more?

    Well, the key advantage of a mechanical switch is that it prevents derailments. Unlike a traditional switch track, the mechanical piece guarantees that all the wheels in the carriage will follow the same path, and that all wagons in the train will do the same. With the classic track, some manual guidance is needed to ensure the train goes the correct direction, especially when negotiating the curved portion of the switch.

    Switch style comparison

    This is clearly important for battery trains, the whole point of which are to run without needing to be handled. But mechanical switches are useful even for unpowered engines, too. If you want to set up a layout where the default path through the switch is the curved path, not the straight, then a mechanical switch is going to be a lot more convenient and a lot less hassle than a traditional switch.

    There are some down sides to mechanical switches, though. First, they are, as mentioned earlier, more expensive and harder to find used. Second, they take up more space. The mechanical actuator sticks out almost 30mm from the side of the track, so you can't lay the straight edge of a mechanical switch very close to a parallel run of track. And third, you have to be able to reach the actuator to move it.

    With some careful planning, though, you can work around all of these. In general, it comes down to the following: use mechanical switches only where they are truly needed, and plan your layout so that there is room for them. In the coming days, I'll be updating the 2-D SketchUp model file to include the mechanical switch parts to help with that.

  • September '14 Layout

    I just finished making a layout that incorporates a large number of my newer BRIO pieces, dating from about 2007 and on, as well as a fairly large double track layout. The central theme was to create an airport around the #33306 Airplane Boarding Set and a mass transit loop with multiple stops to connect to it. Sadly, this particular set is not currently available in the U.S., but you can either buy it from an international seller or get it's larger brother, the Monorail Airport Set, from Amazon to get a plane in white and red instead of blue and white.


    The runway was something I built myself. It's a 4" x 24" x 3/16" sheet of basswood which I sprayed with several coats of Rust-Oleum black lacquer paint to build up a nice surface. Once it had cured for several days, I created a plastic stencil for the runway markings and applied them with Rust-Oleum's white lacquer spray in about five or six light passes. I let that cure for several days, as well. To make the rest of the airport I simply reappropriated existing BRIO accessories. The late-90's vintage #33564 Signal House looks so much like a control tower that some people on eBay mistake it for an airport, so that was an obvious choice. For the terminal building, I chose the 90's vintage #33663 Railway Station only without the decorative window on top.

    The water that forms the main lake, ponds, and the sea port is light blue cardstock that has been hot laminated for durability (this also had the side effect of making the water slightly reflective, which is a nice effect). This is something I discussed in an earlier blog post and you can see the final look in the rest of the layout photos.

    View the album directy on flickr if you don't have Flash or if you're on a mobile device.

    Here's the track plan (click to enlarge):

    This was arranged on my two 8' x 3' laminated plywood sheets which I use as table tops. This layout does make use of two pieces of A3 track at the crossover, though that is easily changed if you don't have A3 or an equivalent straight.

Shop for BRIO on