Turn Your Train Table Into A Light Table

I look at awesome DIY projects for kids every single night after my own go to sleep. I usually don’t have any intention of making anything (that would require time and talent that I generally lack), but I keep up on the latest as an Ohdeedoh contributor. That makes me kind of an encyclopedia of OPP (other people’s projects), but it’s rare that I actually get gripped by the desperate need to make stuff. Lately I’ve noticed lots of light tables, many cleverly constructed from plastic storage containers. I wanted something much bigger that several kids could use at once and started contemplating a conversion of our train table, a KidKraft number branded as Circo and sold at Target two years ago. I got it on sale, natch. The center support beam would be visible but that was fine by me. I knew it could be done, but there were a few setbacks.

Where to get the tabletop? White plexiglass in larger sizes is not a stock item in any big box or neighborhood hardware store. I considered buying clear and applying frosted contact paper or sanding to render it translucent, but I didn’t want imperfections in the surface to distract the kids from activities. That would miss the point and annoy me endlessly. After weeks of agonizing over this decidedly first world problem, I reached out to an architect friend for spiritual guidance. Call a plastics place and get a quote to have a table top fabricated. For a few extra bucks they will take off the sharp edges. Good advice! I paid about $65 for a piece of 3/16″ translucent acrylic #2447 cut to 31.5″ x 43.125″.

How do I light the thing? Some of the smaller light tables I saw were illuminated with tap lights or small battery operated fluorescents, but I was paranoid about a bulb breaking and couldn’t figure out how to get the light distributed evenly over such a large area. Thankfully this conundrum coincided with the holiday season, and the answer was in my face one day as I walked into Target. Rope lights!

I thought I could use the included clips and measure things with great precision, but those clips are crap and so is my patience. I devised a a very janky bottom to bridge the opening in the table base using foamcore and white duct tape. A handful of those crappy clips did help to attach the lights around the perimeter, but I eyeballed a pretty random and sloppy configuration that I was able to tweak to get a nice uniform effect. There needs to be sufficient distance between the lights and tabletop to avoid patterns shining through the plexi.

Note: white duct tape gives a nice finish to jagged foamcore edges. It’s not so much punk rock as it is a good shortcut for sloppy people.

Rope lights are so great for this application. They are pliable and generate very even light with minimal heat; I used two 24′ strands of the plain old rope lights, no fancy LEDs. I can tuck the cord underneath the tabletop when we are using it for trains, then pop it out and attach an extension cord when we are ready for light table madness. For train play we just leave the plexi underneath the landscape tabletop then set it aside when we want to play with light. This is what the inside of the table looks like:

Here it is in action. My kids think it’s the coolest thing ever. They gather around the light table and play with magnatiles for hours. I’m looking forward to more light table activities to help us get through the early sunsets of our long midwestern winter.

19 comments to Turn Your Train Table Into A Light Table

  • tammy

    this is totally awesome…great ingenuity!!

  • Andrea

    Oh my wow! Fantastic work! Thank you for sharing.

  • It’s simply elegant and I can see why your children love to spend their time there. Well done!!

  • Nadine

    Wow Wow Wow Thank you so much for this wonderful idea!! :)

  • martha

    Where to get the shapes? This is awesome!

  • Roni

    Hi Martha, those are clear colors Magna-Tiles. We got the 100 piece set. I understand that they are in rare supply now due to factory flooding in Thailand but should be back in production shortly. In the meantime avoid price gougers on amazon and ebay. I’ll post a list of other fun toys for light play asap.

  • Michelle

    Am completely copying this idea. Found exact same table on craigslist and am picking it up tomorrow. Have already picked up the string lights and will order the plexiglass top as soon as I can remeasure the top. So excited. Thanks for the great idea.

  • Chloe

    Did you frost the plexiglass? The light distribution looks so nice and even.

  • Roni – This is amazing!!! Thanks so much for sharing. We’ve been looking for a fun way to explore light and color. The rope lights are perfect.

  • Roni

    Hi Chloe – the key is really the white plexi, which is perfect for this application. I didn’t do a thing to it. When I initially set things up I could make out the rope lights through the plexi, but I was able to resolve that by manually tweaking the arrangement to maintain about 6″ of distance between the lights and the underside of the plexi.

  • Cindy

    Roni, I would love more suggestions on toys for the light table. I saw the super high price for MagnaTiles and was shocked. Glad to know that it’s (hopefully?) temporary.

  • Hi!! This is a great idea!! I am picking up a train table tonight. However, can you please give me the name of the glass distribution company you used for the plexi glass. I live in the west Chicago suburbs. Thanks!!

  • Roni

    I used Petersen on Pulaski: http://www.petersenplastics.com/ If you are still sourcing other materials I saw rope lights on mega-clearance at Target.

    Have fun and let me know how it turns out. Thanks for reading!

  • [...] around the internet where someone converted a train table to a light table! (You’re awesome, Minivan or Clown Car?) We have one of those ridiculously large train tables taking up space in our playroom anyway. We [...]

  • leah

    Would love to construct it for our classroom!! problem is when we turn off lights we still have lots of light in the classroom. How much darkness does it require to get full affect? Our classroom has lots of big windows that is why light not dark.

  • Roni

    Our family room has large windows and we have used the table before dusk, but I don’t know how effective it would be in full daylight. You can always increase the amount of light by adding another set of rope lights.

  • Dawn

    I can’t wait to try this out in my classroom! I already have a table & will be contacting my local plastic manufacturer on Monday ;-) I had the same idea, but wasn’t sure where to find the plastic until I googled and came across this wonderful site. Thank you!

  • Lei Ai

    Hi Roni,
    I was inspired by this and went ahead and got a kidkraft train table which was on sale. However mine doesn’t have the middle split in the top pane or the sloping side storage. I was wondering what length were the rope lights you used for the amount of illumination shown on your picture?

  • Roni

    I used two 24′ rope lights.

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