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Historical Wooden Train Sets - Page 1

Last Update: Oct 2009

Information compiled by Doug A, e-mail: .

Special thanks go to:

Dave Pecota who has authored much of the text on the history pages and provided many photos and research information! Thanks, Dave!
Nero Matthias for the photos of some of the Micki Trains from Sweden.
Sharon Nowlin who has been a source for many vintage toy catalogs and advertisements that have helped document the history of these trains. Sharon has an e-Bay store at:
Judy's Old Wooden Toys: Toy articles and for sale:

This History Pages are split into two pages because they are growing quite large. Covered here (so far) are: 

Page 1: (This Page)

Skaneateles Handicrafters (Haba/T.C. Timber)
Jack-Built Snap-Trains
Micki Sweden

Page 2: 

Lincoln Log
Learning Curve
Lionel Licenses
Ertl Hometown Roadway
Strombecker TootsieToy
Lights, Camera, Interaction! 

Skaneateles Handicrafters 

As explained on the main page, there are many manufacturers of toy wooden railroads that all use the same basic track and train sizes. We often say that these sets are "BRIO" compatible. However, it's not because BRIO is the oldest train manufacturer, but rather because BRIO is one of the best known names in Wooden Railroads and they captured the market in the mid-1900's. Although BRIO was started in 1884 by the "BRothers Ivarsson of Osby", Sweden, they didn't start making wooden trains until 1957, and they weren't readily available in the United States until around 1977 or so.

Rather, it seems that the start of wooden railroads (especially in the United States) can be given to Skaneateles Handicrafters, which was run by Marshal H. Larrabee in Skaneateles, NY. Mr. Larrabee started making trains in the mid 1930's, over 20 years before BRIO. Skanaeateles trains began as a hobby, but Mr. Larrabee recognized the potential of these toys and soon took his idea to the Marshall Field Company. Skanaeateles Handicrafters was born in 1936, and Mr. Larrabee was was awarded a few design patents for his wooden trains and tracks in the 1940's. Mr. Larrabee could still be found at the factory in Skaneateles at the age of 90. A few articles on Mr. Larrabee can be found here: Profile of Marshall H. Larrabee II at The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb 1998 Technology Alliance of Central NY, Technology Club Newsletter June 2001 The link to the specific document is too long; search on Habermaas on this page and you'll find a PDF of "A Parent's Guide to Imaginative Block Play", a brochure by T.C. Timber with some historical information included at the end.

Through the years, Skaneateles Handicrafters (SH) trains could be found under other brand names. Playskool, in particular, carried the SH trains under their banner.

In 1980, Habermaass GmbH (of Germany) acquired the Skaneateles Handicrafters company and the train portion of the company changed their name to T.C. Timber. T.C. Timber trains are typically carried by high-end toy stores, and are not typically found in department stores. In 2003, Habermaas GmbH became known as HABA USA, a wholesale distributor of HABA, T.C. Timber, TOGU, and Spielstabil branded products.

Dave Pecota began writing me about some of the earlier Skaneateles Handicrafters trains (I'll call them SH trains from here on) that he had purchased. His interest sparked some additional research, and this page was the result!

I had seen some T.C. Timber trains in a few stores, but they were very expensive, and the trains were very traditional and "blocky" as compared with the newer trains from BRIO and Learning Curve (in the mid 1990's). In the 90's the train track design was quite traditional, and matched the current Vario-System design.

At the start, however, the design was quite different. Although the track dimensions were basically the same, the track connectors were quite different.

SH Pins Initially, the track connectors used a pin method. This track was donated to me by Martin and is a very old sample of Skaneateles Handicrafters track, probably from the early 1940's. Martin did not have any of the pin connectors, so at this point it is somewhat of a mystery as to what the actual connectors looked like. Did the sets come with connectors, or were kids expected to supply their own?

Mr. Pecota reports that his early 1940's set uses the grommet-style track, so it appears these pin-tracks are late 1930's, early 1940's.
In the 1960's, the connectors were changed to a rubber grommet fitting. The male connector included a rubber grommet that provided a tension fit into the female connector. The track in these photos is from a 1968 Playskool set, and the grommets are still in good shape, although it is evident from the condition of the track and trains that this set was well taken care of. With rough play, I could see these connectors wearing out. SH connector
One of the unique features of this design is that you can raise the track without the connector coming apart, such as to go up a ramp. sh track

 Some photos of this Playskool set are shown below:

Playskool Box
SH Pamphlet
Box Contents

Playskool setup

SH Hookeye As you can see in this photo, SH trains used eye-hook connectors rather than magnets at this time period. The disadvantage is the capability of "poking" yourself with the hook connector, but the advantage is that the trains won't come apart when your are pulling an extra long train. Another disadvantage during playtime is that you can't disconnect the trains without lifting the train from the track. Current T.C. Timber trains now use magnetic couplers.
SH Trains A nice set of older Skeneateles Handicrafters train cars
SH ramp A neat ramp
SH Army
Okay, these aren't train cars, but I had to include them as unique models. Someone on e-Bay had written about another tank, "the very rare item was the SH WW2 armored car... SH needed govt approval to make it."


TC Timber
To the left is a more modern "T.C. Timber" set - the Spiral. As you can see, they added more details to the track to make it look more like real railroad track.

Sadly, T.C. Timber has stopped manufacturing wooden trains (current Oct 2009).

Although the train designs were plain, they had some clever track layouts, as can be seen in this photo from their catalog.

Jack-Built Snap Trains (this section authored by Dave Pecota)

The Jack Built Toy Manufacturing Company was very active in the wood toy train and track market during the 1950’s.   Jack Built was based in California, with a factory located in Burbank and offices listed in both Burbank and Los Angeles.   They also had a show room on 5th Avenue in New York. Many of the boxes that contain Jack-Built Snap Trains contain the words "Made In Japan", so it is likely that while headquartered in the US, the trains may have been manufactured in Japan. The JB company (Ben Orel) was issued US patent #2847798 on Aug 19, 1958 for its snap-style connectors.

Jack Built trains are similar in size and appearance to those produced by the Skaneateles Handicrafters of New York, but use novel (and patented) “snap” couplers to connect both trains and track

The little snap couplers allow trains to be connected or disconnected without removing them from the track.   The couplers also provide enough “play” in the connections to allow the trains to easily negotiate corners and move up and down bridges and ramps, but are strong enough to prevent those frustrating “accidental” disconnects.

The track snap couplers utilized in the track sections provide some lateral and vertical movement in connecting track pieces.  Double-sided curve track could have given the sets additional layout flexibility.   However, Jack Built (B. Orel) wasn’t granted the patent for this type of track until 1961, and it’s unclear whether this modified track actually went into production.   Jack Built wood train sets apparently disappeared from the marketplace about this time.        

Jack Built used high quality hardwoods for their toy products.   The sets were well-made and durable, and were designed for 2 to 10 year old children.  Child safety was a high priority.   As their catalog indicates, the sets provide “train fun that does not need adult supervision and eliminates the hazards of electricity”.  Their product “educate(s) and develops the dexterity of the child through the use of shapes while arranging the parts in their proper position”.

Many educators seemed to agree, as many sets found their way into schools and child-care facilities all over the country.   Some may be soldiering on in this capacity to this day.

Jack Built produced a wide variety of accessories for use with their sets including a water tower, trestle, tunnel, station platform, signal signs, telegraph poles and even a roundhouse with turntable.   In addition, many different “road” vehicles were available including a gasoline tanker, double-deck bus, bulldozer, steamroller, semi-truck/trailer and dump truck. Wood blocks of various sizes and shapes were also included in many of the sets.

All of the trains, planes, boats, tracks and accessories appear to have been produced only in natural wood.   None apparently were painted or received decorative paint details or stickers of any sort.

Jack Built trains and vehicles can be used with any Brio-compatible train set, but the unusual track couplers will not work with any other types of track.

In addition to their Snap Train, Snap Plane and Harbor sets, Jack Built sold a variety of toy products including crayons and “wipe-off” coloring books, wood looms and children’s books.   Their sales literature indicates that Jack Built Toys was a division of Albin Enterprises.  But both companies … or at least the company names … seemed to have disappeared from the toy product scene by the mid 1960’s.


 snaptrain set

 snap train close

Jack Built Catalog 1960

Micki Leksaker (Sweden)

Micki Leksaker is a family-owned company that began in 1944 with the introduction of the first Micki wooden figure. They currently (2007) have 55 employees, and are located in Gemla, Sweden.  The trains are of the simplistic design such as Haba and Heros trains. One of the unique features of the Micki trains are that all the track has only female cutouts, and they use small plastic connectors to join the tracks. I don't know much about the history of Micki Leksaker, but I got some nice photos of an older set from Nero Matthias that I've inlcuded below:
Micki connector Here's a current connector

Photos below are some older Micki trains:

Micki Trains

Micki train

Micki Track

  If you look closely, you can see the plastic
connectors used to connect the female-end track

Micki Engine

Old Micki Train

BRIO ("BRothers Ivarsson of Osby", Sweden)

A nice history of BRIO can be found on thier own homepage:

A have noticed a small conflict in information I've found on the web. Dr. Toy's "History of Toys" indicates that BRIO first produced a figure 8 train set in 1884, but other information I've found states that BRIO didn't start making trains until 1957. If the Dr. Toy history is correct, then I would expect that the figure-8 train was probably a larger "toddler" train and certainly not on the Vario-System scale used today.

The first trains were 4 card sets with wooden wheels. It seems that by 1964 or so, BRIO was offering a selection of both hook-eye connectors as well as magnetic connectors.

Through the 1990's or so, BRIO trains were made in Sweden, and you will notice this on the emblems. More recently however, BRIO has outsourced some of its manufacturing to China, and the emblem now simply states "BRIO". I am not sure if there are still any BRIO products made in Sweden or not.

brio labels

In the U.K., BRIO also used to make Thomas The Tank Engine™ trains. Since Learning Curve owned the license in the USA, these trains were not available here.

Early BRIO Trains. I don't know the specific dates of these trains, but as you can see in the photo, they used hook and hook-eye connectors rather than the magnetic connectors found today.
brio eyehook
This is a set of 1960's era BRIO Trains that include both eye-hook connectors and exposed magnets. I'm not sure what the use of the hook on the front of the engine would have been since all the other cars have magnetic couplers. It may have been so a child could tie a string to the train for use as a pull train.
brio early magnet trains
Here are a couple of sets from the 1980's. Notice the new version of the magnets with metal tips rather than the exposed magnets in the set above.

The red BRIO engine to the right (from the mid-1980's) is a model of an electric engine. The bars across the top of the engine are the  pantographs, which in a real engine connect it to the electrical signal, providing power to the train.
brio electric

Yet another early BRIO...
Brio Box Cab Express
Some BRIO vehicles from their 1999 Catalog, and below a few vehicles from the same era. In this period BRIO began to expand into minitature people characters.  brio catalog 1999
brio battery engine

Note the use of more plastic rather than wood. The engine above is motorized, and the ambulence to the right makes a siren sound and the lights flash.
brio assorted

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