Make the Empress Express from How to Get Away with Myrtle with UGEARS’ Harry Potter Hogwarts Express kit

UGEARS is the Ukrainian company that creates spectacularly engineered models, reflecting the history of science and technology in plywood gears and rods.  They also make steampunk and fantasy creations.  I’ve reviewed several STEM kits provided by UGEARS (check out my reviews here) as well as a magnificent mechanical winged dragon model (reviewed here and still flying) and Mechanical Celesta (reviewed here).  This winter UGEARS added working, functional vehicles from the Harry Potter franchise (see my review of the Weasley flying car from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets here and the Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban here)–the model series was voted Warner Bros’ Discovery’s Product of the Year.  Below I review the final Harry Potter model in the series, the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (it’s available from UGEARS here).  But I’ve added a twist.

UGEARS typically doesn’t recommend painting its models, because if you get paint on the gears they are less likely to work.  But I’ve noticed several YouTube videos this year of European modelists doing well with dyes on UGEARS models.  Since 2020 I’ve been wanting to make a good facsimile of excursion empresario Sir Quentin Ballingall’s Empress Express train from Elizabeth C. Bunce’s Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery novel, How to Get Away with Myrtle.  I learned in my search that 19th century British train kits (or even statues or toys) are hard to come by, but the UGEARS kit from the Harry Potter line ended up a great train to make up in colors like the Empress Express as described in the novel.

As stated on the UGEARS website: “You can choose to leave your completed model in its attractive, natural wood state, paint it in the livery colors of the Hogwarts Express as seen in the Harry Potter movies, or give it your own original finish. Paint not included.”  Challenge accepted!  Check out my review and updated color scheme details for the kit below.

First, here’s a scene from the movie featuring the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–I think the model looks better than the train in the film:

The compact box ships from Ukraine or your local model shop.

It includes several sturdy laser-cut plywood sheets, one piece of wax and one piece of sandpaper–both for friction reduction, a large metal spring to run the locomotive’s wind-up-and-go feature, two rubber bands to attach the engine, and the instruction booklet.

Once built, the kit is a solid model for your shelf, which–if built carefully–can be wound up to speed across the floor.  A segment of railroad track is included, but this is for display only.  The assembled train doesn’t always fit perfectly on the track, so you can see why it wouldn’t ride if you acquired a full circle of track such as included with toy trains over the past century.  The above photo shows how the locomotive is a bit difficult to fit on the curved track (like the train in Back to the Future 3?). 

The train runs courtesy of a spring-powered motor, which is wound using a “secret” removable key (shown above) stored on top of the coal car–a similar mechanism for anyone who has built the Knight Bus from this series.  Raise the smokestack to lock the drive gears.  With the train stopped you can remove the secret winding key, insert it into the ratchet mechanism on the side of the locomotive and give it a few twists.  It all operates from a system of gears that transfer energy from the spring to the wheels, which roughly mirror how actual vintage train wheels worked together.

If you’re going to do any painting, I always recommend painting parts on the wooden laser-cut trees first.

The problem with that method with this kind of wood is any acrylics will act as glue, and make it hard to remove the parts if a piece splits later.

So experiment with different types of paints on unused parts of the trees first.

It’s probably best for anyone not a professional modelmaker to wait until you’re complete with the build itself to paint if you want the train to move with all the gears in motion.

The coal car was a breeze to build, and I had fun making the paint scheme for the Empress Express from How to Get Away with Myrtle for the passenger car.

In the novel amateur sleuth Myrtle describes the spectacularly purple train, including purple seats and interior of the passenger cars.  I used a Victorian fabric purple for the seats with stained wood, based on some photos I found from the era.

The passenger car has opening and closing doors that lock with working handles on one side, front and back.

Note that the train on the cover of How to Get Away with Myrtle follows the fall color scheme of the book, painted by artist Brett Helquist, known best for his Series of Unfortunate Events covers.  Yep, it’s a purple train, just reflecting the harvest colors.

The instructions are primarily visual, using symbols instead of words.  For this kit assembly was straightforward except part 100 is missing from the instructions (but it appears assembled in the next page so it’s simple enough to figure out).

For the coal tender car and passenger car I used a purple metallic acrylic paint, plus hobby shop rub-on decals and gold foil stick-on trim like you’d find on model race cars.  It all worked really well.  Gold paint does not adhere well to the type of wood UGEARS kits are made from.  The “B” on each car represents Sir Ballingall, owner of the excursion train, a P.T. Barnum-type whose name comes from a real 19th century entrepreneur.

Although the two attached cars look pretty close to the real thing, the locomotive has an open design to see the gears.  You could use Tamiya putty to fill holes and even paper the locomotive as done in model airplanes.

Here are some photos of the final model as painted:

I spent two months with this kit.  The coal car and passenger car were quick builds, easy to make over a weekend.  The locomotive was far more difficult, and I lost a few weeks waiting for replacement parts when the wood snapped in front of the wheel assembly, the section shown here:

Although UGEARS instructions don’t mention this, I would use a hobby knife to remove all parts.  The wooden washers in particular have a habit of fraying, no matter how you remove them from the trees.  My recommendation to the designers for future kits would be clearer instructions on the expectation of moving parts.  I was never sure I had the spring inserted in the wood base correctly, and I am guessing that early step is what kept the locomotive from working as expected.  I can move all the wheels with my hand, but there’s a tension problem somewhere and there’s no way to disassemble the kit without breaking more parts.  I’ll also note I have yet to have luck with a UGEARS spring-based kit.  The purely gear-engineered models or rubber band-powered models didn’t have this issue.  UGEARs states this kit can be completed in seven hours, and notes it’s for advanced modelers.  It took me much longer.

Ultimately the Harry Potter Hogwarts Express model looked just like the product box image once complete.  Although I couldn’t get the locomotive to reliably engage to pull the other two train cars, other builders on the UGEARS fan forums have posted videos of their kits working as expected.  As with the other kits in the Harry Potter line, I’d recommend getting this kit just for display and the fun of building.  And paint it, either like the train in the movie, or as I’ve done for the How to Get Away with Myrtle design, or any other color you’d like.

Don’t forget to check out the other UGEARS kits I’ve reviewed if you missed them, what I consider to be the best bet especially for young builders and learners: the 2-in-1 Arithmetic Kit (reviewed here), the Gearbox (reviewed here), the Random Generator (reviewed here), the Tachometer (reviewed here), and the Variator (reviewed here).  In addition to the other STEM kits we reviewed, UGEARS offers four other STEM kits you may want to try: a Differential gear, a Counter, a Pendulum, and a Curvimeter tool, and outside the STEM series are other engineering marvel kits like the Pneumatic Engine and Dynamometer, plus many stunning, elaborate, advanced kits like the Windstorm Dragon reviewed here, and the rewarding musical instrument, the Mechanical Celesta, reviewed here.  Take a look at all the available UGEARS models at the UGEARS website for more information.

You can order UGEARS products at its website here and support the artisans, engineers, and craftspeople in Ukraine.  Keep coming back–I’ll be diving into several more UGEARS models later this year.

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg

Leave a Reply