Kids love playing in cardboard boxes! It ignites their creativity and gives them a place to call their own. When my son turned three he was really into trains, so that coupled with his love for playing in cardboard boxes gave me the idea to make a cardboard train!
How To Make the Cardboard Train
Get 4 used refrigerator boxes from a distribution warehouse. Usually the delivery people unpack the refrigerators and take the boxes with them to recycle, so the boxes are in pretty good shape. I used 2 boxes for the engine and 2 for the passenger car. You can also use this tutorial to make a scaled down version with smaller boxes.
Join the pieces with paper tape. You can find paper tape at Blick Art Materials, your local art store, or click here to buy paper tape on Amazon. Paper tape is normally used to stretch watercolor paper, but is the best for this project because it’s thin and you can paint it. If you’ve never used it before all you have to do is cut it to the length you need, wet it (the back of the tape is like old fashioned stamps) and stick. Then you let it dry for a little bit. It’s really strong and does not come apart unless you don’t let it dry all the way.
To make the passenger car, stand both boxes upright and cut each one along one of the folds. This created two big flaps which can be opened and taped to the box next to it to join them together.
To make the engine, stand one box upright for the back half and one box on its side for the rounded part. To round out cardboard you slice the top side with shallow cuts along the grooves the entire length of the box with a utility or mat knife. When you make these cuts, the top layer of the corrugated cardboard is cut but the bottom layer stays intact to keep the shape. You don’t have to cut along every single groove; skip a few in between.
The more cuts you make along the radius, the more smooth the curve will be, but you don’t have to overdo it. After making the cuts you will find that you can bend the box to make the curve. You could use paper tape to cover the slits after you are done putting it together, but it’s not necessary. Then cut a hole in the tall box for the door and use that piece for the front of the engine to form the box.
Finally, make the wheels using leftover boxes or cardboard. Again, use a utility knife to cut them out. To make the wheels perfect circles use this little trick to make a big, homemade compass!
- Make a long cardboard strip
- Put a push pin on one side and make a hole on the opposite end big enough to poke a marker through
- Stick the push pin in the center of the cardboard and move the marker around to make the circle
Paint the train with latex house paint. I thought about spray paint but that gets really expensive because of the size. It seems like regular paint is going to be too wet and make the cardboard wrinkle and get all wavy, but it didn’t. I used the cheapest stuff I could find at our local home improvement store. I ended up getting red, yellow and black and mixed the colors to save money. If you aren’t too particular about colors, sometimes paint stores will give away the paint they mixed incorrectly (or at least sell it a lot cheaper).
You can of course paint the train however you would like… Design it to look like Thomas the Train made from cardboard boxes or a cardboard box Polar Express.
Projects Inspired by Our Train
Thanks so much for all of your emails about the cardboard train! We’re so glad this project inspired you and we love seeing what you created.
Brenda Johnston from Pueblo, Colorado sent us photos of the train that they made for their county fair float. (Thanks, Brenda!) She made a kid-sized door in the back and hung a black curtain, which was a tablecloth from Dollar Store, for easy entrance and exit. They are planning on cutting down the cow catcher and decorating the train for their Christmas Parade of Lights. How cool that they can use it again!
You also might be interested in how to make a cardboard robot…
I made a cardboard robot to hold balloons at our front door for a robot-themed birthday party! Click here for tips on how to make a cardboard robot or click on the image below.