For the train lovers: DIY funicular train

DIY funicular train

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Planes, trains and automobiles. It’s more than just a great movie and your average, everyday modes of transportation. For Buddy, it was life for a very long time.

While his obsession with vehicles has calmed down, he’s still a big fan of anything with a motor. And when he got strep, we spent 2 solid days talking about trains.

It started with him breaking out our Look Inside Trains book. He was especially into the “Up High” funicular trains.

Funicular trains are pairs of trains on a cable that go up and down a steep incline. As one train is pulled up, the other train is sent down on the other side. The weight of the 2 trains counterbalance one another, making the whole process easier to control.

Since we were stuck at home, we decided to take a stab at building our own funicular train. Luckily, you can build one with things you probably already have lying around. Because there’s some cardboard cutting, hole punching and knot tying, you’ll need to do some of the work on this one if you’re working with younger kids. But try to stay hands off where you can! (It’s tough, but totally worth it.)

What you need:the things we used

How we build our funicular train.

  1. Cut the box so it lays flat.
  2. Refold the box to make a right triangle and tape it so it stays put. The angled face of the box is going to be the mountain. If you are using a large box, fold it so there is a generous amount of cardboard laying flat that will act as your “ground.”
  3. Measure the paper to cover the angles face of the box. This is going to be your mountain.
  4. Give the paper and markers to the child and tell them to go to town drawing a mountain to buy yourself time to figure out how you’re going to pull this off. Buddy drawing a mountain
  5. Poke 2 holes in the top of the mountain side of the box (to thread your string through).
  6. Poke 2 holes on the flat “ground” part of your box. If you’re like us and only had a small box, pick a table or chair to put your mountain on and find something that you can use to loop the string through at the bottom. For example, we put our mountain on Buddy’s craft table and taped the base of his Giant Pegboard to the floor at the bottom. The holes in the Pegboard were perfect to loop the string through. You could also tape a bendy straw to the floor or use another box with holes. It doesn’t have to be fancy. At the end of the day, we just need to be able to connect the top and bottom of the mountain with a string loop. 
  7. Measure the string so it will go from the bottom of your mountain to the top and then back down again so you can make a loop.
  8. Request to see the beautiful mountain your sweet child has created. Be sure to have him sit on top of the coffee cup he knocked over so you don’t see it until the contents have spilled everywhere (including the mountain masterpiece).
  9. Stop everything for 30 minutes to clean up a Yeti‘s worth of coffee.
  10. Returning to the project at hand, tape the coffee-soaked mountain to the cardboard. Poke holes in the paper to line up with the holes at the top of the cardboard.
  11. Thread the string through the holes at the top of the mountain.
  12. Cut holes in the bottom of your cups. These are going to be your trains.
  13. Place one cup on either side of the loop and bring them halfway up the mountain before affixing them. You can attach them by making knots or by taping them to the string. I used plastic ice cream push-up cups that already had a hole in the bottom and taped them on.
    cups taped on to the string

    Notice the knot on the inside of the left cup? That’s my large loop knot. I put it inside the cup to avoid having to deal with the knot going through the holes at the top or bottom of our mountain.

  14. Thread the string through the bottom holes. I recommend tying the loop off directly beneath one of the cups. Otherwise, the knot may get stuck as the trains go up and down.
  15. All aboard!!final funicular train

To move the train up and down pull one side of the string. One train will go up, the other will go down. Not too shabby, right??

Lessons learned

Besides being more careful with my coffee cup, there are only a couple things I would change if I did this again.

  • I’ve already mentioned it, but it’s worth saying again. One large box would have been so much easier.
  • Small paper cups would make perfect trains.
  • I should have made the holes at the top of my mountain larger and maybe taped the inside to cut down on friction. You could also run the string through a straw or other tube if you had that handy.
  • Make sure the holes are set so the string will be at a lower-grad angle than the mountain. If it’s too steep, the cups will drag against the cardboard all the way up.
  • After a couple rounds, we put a book under one side of our mountain base to keep the bottom of our loop from rubbing the floor.

I’m proud to say that our funicular train is still set up in the play room (most cardboard crafts don’t last long in my house). Not too bad for an impromptu sick day project!

What do you think? Would your kids be into building a funicular train?