I am planning to build a case to hold my old Lionel train set. I have the original cardboard and styrofoam box, which is beat up at this point and I'd like to give the train to my son in a keepsake box.

The total weight of the set is than 10 pounds (maybe less than 5). There are half a dozen cars, a dozen sections of track and various accessories. I would like to build a flat case, perhaps one that opens like a book. It will have compartments covered with a layer of thin foam and felt. The dimensions are ~2'x2' (or double if I put everything on one level).

I have little experience with woodworking and would be doing everything by hand. I have only done little projects in the past and always using pine. I am deciding what wood makes most sense for this project, considering I want it to be sturdy, but lightweight. Pine is easy for me to work with, but might be too soft. What wood would be light enough to be very portable, but strong enough to stand the test of time? Also avoiding the most expensive wood.

Thanks very much.

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    Won't bother adding another Answer as the existing ones cover the bases well I think but just want to add a bit on pine. If you're OK with it looks-wise then it's more than adequate as regards strength — military ammunition and gun cases can be made from pine which shows it's actually pretty tough stuff! Obviously the strength of any wood is partly down to the thickness of the stock used, for what you need here under 1/2" is going to be A-OK so if final thickness is 3/8" that's fine, and the box will be quite light. Don't forget that the joints you use will also factor into the final strength.
    – Graphus
    Jan 14, 2016 at 11:25
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    Keep the boxes if they are original! Jan 22, 2016 at 19:02
  • Normally I would, but I don't think the box would have any value. It's also not a high end set, it was a Toys R Us Lionel branded train, I think the whole thing originally cost $30 (around 1980).
    – Bren
    Jan 22, 2016 at 19:10
  • @Bren - you'd be surprised at what people will decide is collectible in the future and how much they might be willing to pay for it. I'd try to find some way to keep the boxes if I were you!
    – FreeMan
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:53

3 Answers 3


Pine is easy for me to work with, but might be too soft. What wood would be light enough to be very portable, but strong enough to stand the test of time? Also avoiding the most expensive wood.

Though pine is soft, it is still a good choice.

In The Anarchist's Tool Chest, Chris Schwarz recommends eastern white pine for the carcase construction of the chest. The reason is that it's lightweight and easy to work. Also, a tool chest, being essentially a shop tool itself, is expected to get dinged up and show its age. With all of the heavyweight joinery used in the chest (dovetails everywhere), the connections between the pieces are robust enough that a less-strong wood works fine.

You say you want your box to be ~2'x2', and I'm going to assume that it will be about 6" deep too to fit the contents. That's going to be a pretty lightweight pine box. Compare that to, say, oak, and you will see a savings of 30-50% in weight, with not really a huge difference in durability if properly constructed.

If you want the box to look "better" than a simple stained and varnished pine box, you might want to go the route used for Schwarz's tool chest. He used milk paint to cover the chest - a base layer of red followed by a black outer layer. As the chest wears in, the black will get scuffed off, revealing the red underneath. Personally, I find this effect very pleasing. You could do something similar in the Lionel orange and blue, or even get really fancy and do up the Lionel logo in paint.


  • Thanks very much. Would be great if pine suffices, most comfortable with it. I like the paint idea as well. Will be a long project for me but hoping to get started. Will also pick up the book.
    – Bren
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:01

It depends on what you have available for tools. Assuming a minimal set of tools, and limiting myself to commonly available stuff, I'd recommend using 1/4" plywood for the top and bottom of the case, and 1/2" hardwood for the dividers and sides. Baltic Birch plywood would be the best.

My Dad made a similar case for me when I was a kid for storing my many matchbox cars. As I recall, it was a hardwood box with plywood bottom and a piece of Plexiglas set that slid in a groove to cover it.

  • Thank you, will check it out. The plywood I've seen hasn't looked like it would be keepsake-quality but will look at the Baltic Birch.
    – Bren
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:00
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    Use plywood for the captured panels (top and bottom). Only the face grain will show, not the edge grain.
    – LeeG
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:11
  • @Bren - second Baltic birch. It's good stuff, but kinda expensive, and not the easiest to work with only hand tools.
    – grfrazee
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:29

Do not use pine because it has a strong grain which means it will tend to warp.

For box-like objects the usual material is boxwood (doh, I feel dumb saying that) or birch. Both those woods have a softer grain and tend to stay flat.

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    Where have you been able to source boxwood in quantities enough to build a large box? I've never seen more than scraps of it. Also, boxwood is expensive.
    – grfrazee
    Jan 14, 2016 at 19:41
  • @grfrazee Well, then use birch. Jan 14, 2016 at 20:23
  • Did you get the idea that pine has a particular tendency towards warping from the stuff sold in HD etc? That's not the thing to judge pine by :-) Warping has most to do with the cut and drying of wood, not species. I have many older pine pieces around me here and they're no more prone to warping than if made from hardwoods, including beech or oak.
    – Graphus
    Jan 15, 2016 at 11:10

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