Wooden Train that Could: Thomas the Train Aims for U.S. Expansion

By Bill Esler | Posted: 07/20/2014 12:37PM


Wooden toys - Lincoln Logs, Tootsie Toys, building blocks and puzzles -  may be an overlooked wood manufacturing niche, but opportunities in this segment will grow as owner Mattel expands U.S. sales of its global phenomenon, Thomas the Train.

Thomas the Train is pretty much all wood: the 3-inch engines and cars, the interlocking tracks, and the "high end eccessories" like round houses and turn tables, with some plastic doors and other elements added on. Its platform and specifications match those of an older brand, Brio, founded in 1958. The current version is amrekted under the Fischer-Price brand and has its own microsite. 

Thomas the Train originated in a British TV show, and the spin-off toys for Thomas & Friends ranked number one in the preschool toys category in the U.S. and made the top 10 for the entire U.S. toy industry in 2010, according to Wikipedia. It's popularity has spawned wooden licensed trains from Lionel and even Major League baseball and NFL football-themed trains.

In January 2011, Thomas & Friends ranked as the number-one preschool toy property in the U.K. for the 11th year in a row. Thomas is also a top-seller in Australia, Germany, Japan and Korea, according to an extensive Wikipedia entry.

In the age of the iPad as babysitter, the mystique of the wooden toy seems to know no bounds. While the total traditional toy industry in the United States increased 1.9%,Thomas & Friends toy sales increased over 47% according to Licensing Today magazine.

Thomas train parts had been made in China until 2007, when - familiar story - lead was discovered in the painted surfaces. Production then moved to Thailand.

The simplicity of the product and its broad appeal has caused others to manufacturer variants on the Thomas sets, skirting patents and trademarks. Choo Choo Track & Toy of Pacific, MO, which produces parts and accessories from American Beech, some priced over $100. An online dealer of many wooden toy train brands is Trainsgalore.com.

Could a domestic manufacturer arise to take up this production opportunity?

When Lincoln Logs was acquired last year, its new owner said it would like to reshore production of its tiny logs to the U.S., if it could find a domestic supplier.

Could that be you?


About the Author

Bill Esler, Woodworking Network, WMS

Bill Esler

Bill Esler, Editorial Director, Woodworking Network Bill is responsible for overall content at WoodworkingNetwork.com Woodworking Network magazine, and related newsletters. Bill also manages event programs for Woodworking Network Live conferences at the Woodworking Machinery & Supplies Expo in Toronto and Cabinets & Closets Expo. He developing audience engagement programs using custom digital printing, live lead-generating events, custom websites, and custom digital and print content. Read Bill Esler's woodworking blogs. He can be reached at besler@woodworkingnetwork.com or follow him on Google+.

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Michael Rainville    
Middlebury, VT  |  July, 24, 2014 at 06:56 AM

My company, Maple Landmark, has been making compatible wooden trains for over twenty years, since before Thomas was big (they - and us - piggy-backed on a rail standard set decades ago). We've always been American made. With our full line of toys and games we believe we are the largest wooden toy manufacturer in the US. Still it is tough to compete with imported prices. The current Thomas story you report isn't much of a story, mostly just a marketing reset. Thomas used to be very big in the US toy market, selling primarily in specialty toy stores. Due to things like the 2007 recall and the company being acquired and acquired again, the brand was damaged and sales likely decreased. In recent years we have heard a lot less about Thomas and more about other compatible brands. Under larger owners, now Mattel, they were sold everywhere and the "specialness" was lost. Maybe the TV show behind it lost its audience too. Mattel is making a push to get it all back. The newer Lincoln Log offer is like lots of older brand owners, they talk big about American production but want Chinese prices because they still want to sell to big box stores. There are interesting stories of American wooden toys, since companies like us do not sell to Walmart and Toys R Us, we are less visible. Mattel and Thomas are footnotes in the recent history.


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