Friday, October 17, 2014

A New Plan for the N Scale Pagosa & Southern

From Simple Loop to Switching Layout on a Shelf


The Pagosa & Southern, version 2.0. The new shelf layout is just 12" x 72" and uses Kato Unitrack.


In the coming months I will be expanding the On30 Thunder Mesa Mining Co. into the space that has, up until recently, been occupied by the N scale Pagosa & Southern. I began work on the P&S early this year and it was originally designed as a simple loop with a couple of sidings, just a diversion from the big layout really. But in the last month or so I've been firming up plans for expanding the TMMC (new track plan coming soon!) and it has become apparent that the P&S in its original location was standing in the way of progress. After searching in vain for a new location for the layout as originally built, I came to the conclusion that "N Scale Colorado" must adapt to what little space was available or face being packed away in boxes once again.

Fortunately I was able to carve out space for a 6' long shelf above my workbench. Just enough room for some moderately interesting N scale switching. I decided to keep the original theme of a 1950's Colorado town, but now the operational focus will be on switching the local industries and moving traffic through an important interchange with the rival Santa Fe.

Looking at the plan above, all trains will enter and exit the layout from a staging shelf at left.  Beyond the tunnel, a short section of track will mate with 30" long portable staging "cassettes." Each cassette can hold and turn a complete short train (locomotive, caboose, and about 6 cars). I'll have more on building these cassettes in a future update. After switching the town, the locomotive will swap ends with the caboose using the run-around track and head back out the way it came.

The first P&S was built using bombproof Kato Unitrack and I'm recycling it all again here. I've been nothing but impressed by the trouble free operation provided by this track and feel that the aesthetic trade-offs are more than worth it for a project like this. The black and white plan shown above lists the part numbers for all of the Kato Unitrack used.

There won't be the towering mountain scenery planned for the first P&S, but the tunnel, creek and truss bridge area should make for an interesting scene. Structures will also be front and center here so I'll be taking my time on those with some more craftsman-style kits. A shelf layout like this also really lends itself to a shadowbox type presentation, with an integrated lighting system and a backdrop wrapping around three sides.

The first P&S being disassembled. Luckily, I used Kato Unitrack and never glued it down. Most of the wood and foam will be re-used on the Thunder Mesa layout. Unfortunately the backdrop is glued down and can't be removed. I'll make a new one.

For the new shelf layout, a simple box-frame was built from 1" x 3" select pine. It measures 12" wide by 72" long. The two inch holes drilled through the crosspieces are for running the wiring through.

The sub-roadbed deck is 1/2" plywood. I know it's fashionable these days to use polystyrene foam insulation board for this but I find that it turns the entire benchwork into a resonator and makes the trains really loud. I only use foam for scenery.

The track was positioned on the plywood sub-roadbed according to the plan. Locations for turnouts and wiring holes were marked in pencil. This layout has three more turnouts than the original P&S. All are #6.

The layout is mounted to the wall with 5 of these metal shelf brackets from Home Depot. It was propped up and shimmed with whatever was handy as a 4' bar level was used to keep everything straight and true during installation. The final height of the benchwork is 59" above the floor; just below eye level for me. 

I was able to re-use this control shelf which was built for the first P&S. Control can be switched between digital DCC or analog DC. A used Bachmann controller from eBay works okay for now but I'll probably replace it in the future.

The new Pagosa & Southern above my workbench. It shares space with a lot of other stuff.


With the shelf complete and the track installed, I've already been having some fun running trains and switching cars on the layout. So far I'm really enjoying the plan and the greatly enhanced operations over the previous layout. Once the staging cassettes are up and running I'll probably use some type of card order system for operating trains.

It's the 1950's in N scale Colorado and most trains on the P&S are handled by EMD GP7's or Alco RS3's. Both of these Rio Grande locos are from Bachmann. They are DCC equipped and their smooth, dependable running was a major contributing factor in my deciding to turn the P&S into a switching layout. By the way, all of these structures are from old layouts and will probably be replaced.


And speaking of operation, on a switching layout like this, you really need an easy and reliable way to couple and uncouple cars. I've used track mounted magnets in the past and found them to be less than reliable. On the Thunder Mesa layout I use modified bamboo skewers as an uncoupling tool and they work just great. Unfortunately, bamboo skewers are just too big to work in N scale. Here's a quick and easy uncoupling tool I came up with for the P&S:

I cut the head off of a dressmaker's T-pin before mounting it in a handle made from 3/8" doweling. A hole was drilled in the end of the dowel just big enough for a tight press-fit with the pin, then a drop of ACC gel was used to cement it in place. Heat shrink tubing on the handle makes it easy to grip.

To uncouple, just insert the tip between two knuckle style couplers and twist gently. It only takes a very light touch and the cars themselves barely move.  It works by slipping into one knuckle coupler and displacing the other. A slight push separates the cars.


It's funny, but every time I think I'm done with N scale and just about ready to throw everything up on eBay, I start fiddling with those little trains again and get drawn back in. It is worth mentioning how far N scale has come and how much better the trains look and run now, versus when I started in the hobby 35+ years ago. The new stuff is a joy to operate and I can see myself continuing to fiddle in 1:160 for many years to come.

That's about it for this week though. Next week I'll have a new post on Thunder Mesa, all about putting the finishing touches on Big Thunder Creek. I'll finish up this Friday's post with a fond look back at the first P&S. Adios, amigos!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Water Tank at Big Thunder Creek

Modifying a Banta Modelworks Water Tank With a New Roof & Other Details


Engine #6, Ollie Johnston, pauses to take on water at the Thunder Mesa tank. The tank draws its water from the same spring that feeds nearby Big Thunder Creek. It looks like there's still some scenery work to do in this area.


I often work on several projects at the same time. Some get finished in a week or two, while others get dabbled on over the course of months. This water tank project was started last spring but I wanted to complete it as part of the larger Big Thunder Creek project that's been occupying my modeling time for the last month or so. The tank stands just next to the creek, west of the depot in front of Thunder Mesa Mill.

I started with a Branch Line Water Tank kit from Banta Modelworks. This is a nice laser cut wood kit that builds into an attractive model. The smaller dimensions of the tank are a good visual fit with other structures on the TMMC, but I wanted a little more character in my tank so I added a peaked roof and some other details.

Here's what comes in the package: some strip-wood, scribed siding for the tank, laser cut plywood pieces, a couple of handy jigs, laser cut adhesive paper bands, and white metal castings for the spout and other hardware. The kit uses a clever laser cut plywood form to build the tank. Following the directions, I stained all of the wood prior to assembly. I used Minwax wood stain pens on this one, mostly Dark Walnut and Early American.

All the wooden pieces assembled. With the included cardboard jigs, this only took a couple hours. Rubber bands were used to clamp the tank wrapper in place on the plywood form while the glue dried.

I followed the instruction up to about this point on the assembly, then I went off on my own. The tank bands are laser cut, adhesive backed paper that was airbrushed a dark reddish-brown before assembly. The rust is colored chalk mixed with rubbing alcohol and applied with a brush.

I laid out the pieces for a hexagon shaped roof in Adobe Illustrator. These were printed out and then laminated to 1/16" illustration board using a spray adhesive. When cut out and assembled I had the basic shape of my roof. Triangular roof panels were then cut from 100 lb bristol board and glued into place. I chose a hexagon shaped roof due to the small size of the tank. The panels on an 8 sided roof would have been too narrow to allow for an access hatch.

A hatch was built up from strip-wood and bits from the scrap-box before being shingled with Bar Mills laser cut paper shingles. The finial ball is the head of a large dress-pin.

The Bar Mills shingles looked much too garish on their own so I dulled them down with a heavy dose of powdered chalks. The finial ball was painted metallic copper and then given a patina with dry-brushed dark green paint and chalks.

To make it easier to center the roof on the tank, a hole was drilled in the center of each and a small metal pin was inserted to align the two.

Some wooden channel is provided with the kit to make a water gauge, but no markings or hardware come with it. I created gauge markings on my computer to fit in the channel, and a pointer from the head of a rail spike. The spike fits into a hole drilled in the tank and keeps the black thread taut as it runs up the length of the channel to disappear under the roof.

The spout, pulleys and hanger assembly were put together more-or-less as the instructions indicated. One nice detail from the kit I had to omit was the plug pull since that would be hidden by the roof. The white metal castings were painted dull silver and weathered with paint and chalks. Elastic thread, painted a metallic gray, was used for the cables. I added a short length of blackened brass chain with a wooden handle to allow crews to pull down the spout.

The ladder was aligned to access the roof hatch and then glued in place using some leftover strip-wood as supports.

Some of the last details added were these "concrete" footings made from strips of painted illustration board.

Final weathering was done with more powdered chalks mixed with 70% isopropyl alcohol and painted on with a brush. The white mineral stains were brushed upwards from the bottom and rust was stippled onto the tank bands and other metal hardware. Once the alcohol evaporates the chalk colors can be quite strong but they are easily blended in and made more subtle by scrubbing with a stiff brush.


Building the water tank was a fun project and I'm very pleased with the way it all came together. Bill Banta makes a fine kit that lends itself well to all sorts of kit-bashing possibilities. I look forward to planting the tank on the layout and working in the ground cover and other details to complete the scene. As always, thanks for following along, questions or comments are welcome below. Adios for now!

Thunder Mesa tank, ready to service locomotives on the TMMC.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thunder Mesa Track Plan: A Simple Change

Here's the most up to date plan for the TMMC and how it fits into the train room/art studio. Grid spacing is 12" and the greyscale areas of the plan are sections still under construction. Tip: To see images full size, right click and select "Open link in new tab."


I've decided to make a minor tweak to the TMMC's track plan that should greatly improve enjoyment and operations. Over three years ago, Thunder Mesa started out as a simple 3'x6' continuous loop - a real caboose chaser one might say. Over time, the concept evolved and the railroad expanded, but the core loop always remained. I enjoy operations, but I also really like just sitting back and watching the trains roll through nice scenery. The trick has always been to design a plan that offered the best of both worlds. Recently, I discovered a solution that would let me operate the railroad in a realistic point-to-point manner, while still allowing for continuous running. It turns out, the simple addition of a switch and the re-alignment of a couple of tracks are all that was required.

In the old plan, a hidden wye switch was installed inside of Rainbow Caverns so that operators could choose to send trains up the mainline to Calico or back via the return loop to Thunder Mesa. Now, a new right-hand switch will be installed along with a straight section of track to convert the entire Thunder Mesa Section into a reverse loop. The old loop track and hidden wye will be removed.


A closer view of the revised plan. With the new track arrangement, trains can now travel the entire mainline in a reverse-loop-to-reverse-loop continuous run. Why didn't I think of this before?


The reverse loop sections will be controlled by DCC reverse loop modules and I might also automate the turnouts to switch automatically so I can just sit back and watch 'em roll. I'm not sure why I held on to the original loop for so long. Perhaps it was because I knew that giving it up meant I wouldn't be running trains very much until the entire mainline was finished. This simple change of plans might just be the motivation I need to get that done. Comments and questions welcome below. Adios for now!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Big Thunder Creek: Part III ~ Waterfalls, Rapids and Pools

Click here for part I
Click here for part II

An eagle soars high above Big Thunder Creek as the TMMC crews go about their daily work. The cold, clear water issues from a hidden spring below Baxter's Butte, creating a green oasis of life in the midst of the red rock desert. Backdrop and smoke effects added with Photoshop, all else as modeled.


Water has arrived in the desert! As the spooky Never Mine takes shape on the slopes above, a flash flood of clear epoxy resin has transformed Big Thunder Creek from a dry and dusty wash into a gurgling, splashing oasis of life. This past week was spent creating the water effect for Big Thunder Creek and detailing the surrounding scenery. Follow along with the photos and captions as I describe my process for creating believable waterfalls, rapids and pools with acrylic sheet, clear resin, paint and silicone caulk.

The Creek Bed

Before modeling the water itself, the creek bed needed to be detailed. A layer of sand and small stones collected from real creeks in Sedona, AZ and Silverton, CO was laid down and glued in place with a generous amount of matte medium diluted 1:1 with water. 

Once the glue for the stones had set, cattails, tall grasses and other greenery were added along the banks. I wanted this area to appear more lush and green than the rest of the layout. Most of the plant material came from Woodland Scenics and Scenic Express. Note that the foreground trestle deck was still removable at this time to allow for modeling the creek.


The Waterfalls

There are several different ways to model waterfalls. I chose to use a technique learned from Sam Towler's fabulous Nature's Wonderland layout. Basically, 1mm (.04") thick clear acrylic sheet is cut to size, and then textured with a hot soldering iron. I built on Sam's original technique by also using the soldering iron to fuse strips of acrylic together and to shape and sculpt the falls into the more complex forms needed. More acrylic was fused in select places to show variations in the flow of water, and more was added at the bottom of the falls to simulate foam and splashing water. Warning! If you try this technique, use breathing protection and work in a well ventilated area. Also, don't burn yourself with melted plastic or the hot tip of the soldering iron. And always look both ways before crossing the street.

My creek needed three waterfalls and each was sculpted to fit its particular spot. Here, the edges, lip and foamy bottoms of the two lower falls are being highlighted with white acrylic paint. Highlighting is done on the top surface. This is later covered with clear resin or gloss medium to bring back the shine.

Dap 3.0 Crystal Clear Silicone Caulk and Sealant was used to glue each waterfall in place and to act as a dam to hold back the Envirotex resin in each pool when it was poured.

Here, all three acrylic waterfalls are in place and it's just about time to mix up some Envirotex. Note that the walls of the canyon have been darkened at their base with some dark browns and a touch of moss green to simulate rock dampened by mist and splashing water.


The Pools

For the water in my creek I used Envirotex Lite, a two part clear epoxy resin.  It's a really good idea to wear gloves while you do this because you don't want this stuff on your skin. 

I mixed up small batches in 3 oz dixie cups, taking my time and following the directions. Measuring and marking 1/2" from the bottom of each cup (one for resin, one for hardener)  helps to accurately measure the required 1:1 portions of each part.

The resin was mixed 1:1 with the hardener, stirring and scarping with wooden stir sticks for about 3 minutes. A drop of moss green acrylic paint was added to the first pour for depth and color. This project was done in several successive pours and used almost an entire 8 oz kit of Envirotex Lite.

Here's a shot after the first three pours. Envirotex Lite is self leveling and will slowly flow down to settle in the lowest spots (make sure your creek bed doesn't leak!). I started at the topmost pool above the highest falls and worked my way down to the bottom, allowing the resin to spill right over the falls as it went down. A masking tape dam across the fascia kept the resin from oozing right off the front edge of the layout. This was allowed to cure for about 48 hours.


Rapids and Fast Water

Envirotex is great for modeling water but it cures completely flat. For rushing water and rapids, I used clear silicone caulk applied in strips and dabs, directly on top of the cured resin.

A flat toothpick was used to spread, feather and form the caulk into waves riffles and rapids.

Fast water below the big falls.

More rough water caused by stones below the surface. The caulk was applied in any logical place where the water would be fast or disturbed by rocks or other obstacles in the creekbed. It helps to look at lots of pictures of creeks and rivers!

Behind the lefthand trestle pier is a calm backwater. I gave this a mossy, overgrown look by dabbing dirty green acrylics onto the surface with a small brush.

Once the caulk had set overnight, highlights were dry-brushed on using white acrylic paint and a light touch.  This was followed by a thin, clear topcoat of resin poured over the entire creek and brushed across the tops of the rapids.

The final step was to further break up the flat surface of the water by swirling and stippling acrylic gloss medium in the faster moving sections of the creek. 

When dry, these surface ripples reflect and refract the light, adding to the sense of realism.


Up Next

The creek scene is starting to come together. In the final part of this series, I'll describe all of the little details that help bring it to life.


With the completion of the water effects, Big Thunder Creek is just about done. But the creek itself is just one element in a larger scene where many details large and small will help bring it all together. As always, thanks for checking in and following along. Comments and questions are welcome below. Happy trails amigos and adios for now!

It's been a busy day at Big Thunder Creek. I wonder if the fish are biting...

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