Friday, October 24, 2014

Viva San Lorenzo!

Verne Niner's Award Winning Diorama Comes to Thunder Mesa Along With Big Changes to the Track Plan



The sleepy border village of San Lorenzo. This award winning diorama by Verne Niner will soon find a new home on the Thunder Mesa layout. Photo by Verne Niner.


When friend and fellow modeler Verne Niner recently announced that he would be dismantling his Estrella & Sonora Grande layout to pursue new adventures in HOn3, many wondered what would become of the superlative structures, fine details and beautiful equipment from that landmark On30 layout. Well, the short answer is that Verne will be selling off most of the layout to other modelers before finally dismantling it at the first of next year. I was fortunate to come to an agreement with Verne regarding a large chunk of the layout, the village of San Lorenzo. I knew that the diorama would make an excellent addition to the TMMC and I simply could not pass on the chance to own such a beautiful and detailed piece of modeling. It is sad news indeed that Verne's E&SG will soon be history, but we're both happy that the spirit will live on as TMMC trains continue to visit San Lorenzo.

The colors, theme, details and scale of the scene makes San Lorenzo a perfect fit for the Thunder Mesa layout. Photo by Verne Niner.

More San Lorenzo details. The frustrated banditos may never get that pig out of the fountain. Photo by Verne Niner.


The San Lorenzo diorama measures 18" x 30" and features four custom soundtracks in addition to an amazing level of detail. A Fantasonics unit plays the sounds of splashing water in the fountain, ringing mission bells, neighing horses, singing birds and the banditos threatening the pig - all at the touch of a button. Details abound. A diamondback rattlesnake slithers through the bushes, a hawk perches atop a saguaro, and rock hound Chuckawalla Slim's Model T truck pauses by the Mercantile. Above all, the mission church is a remarkable feat of scratch-building, complimenting and contrasting with the smaller, secular buildings of the village. Everything works together here in the best tradition of modeling as story. It is no wonder that the diorama won the 2013 Gazette Award at the 33rd annual Narrow Gauge Convention in Pasadena and was featured in the Jan/Feb 2014 Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.

Thirsty cowboys pause for drink of water near the mission ramada. Photo by Verne Niner.

A local farmer stops to chat with the padré, his traditional oxcart loaded with bales of hay. Photo by Verne Niner.

Detail of the mission doors. Photo by Verne Niner.

Bell tower of the mission church. Note the Harris hawk perched atop the saguaro - a common site in the Sonoran Desert. Photo by Verne Niner.


I know that the San Lorenzo diorama was a real labor of love for Verne and I am honored to be taking stewardship of it. San Lorenzo will remain whole and intact on the Thunder Mesa layout, an important stop along the line, and a tribute to the old E&SG. Some pieces from Verne's On30 collection are still available as of this writing, but they are going fast. Click here if you are interested in owning a piece of Estrella & Sonora Grande history.

Big Changes to the Thunder Mesa Plan

As Verne and I discussed the future of San Lorenzo, we've also been swapping ideas about his planned HOn3 D&RGW layout and about the expansion plans for Thunder Mesa. I have been somewhat discontented with my overall plan and the few tweaks I've made here and there haven't resolved the larger issues. In its original form, the TMMC was a very simple 3' x 6' scenic display with a loop of track. It was what is known as an "island design" meant to be viewed from all sides. This type of design has fallen out of fashion in recent years with most modelers now preferring an "around the walls" style plan. This makes sense because island designs take up a lot of space in the center of the room and, the theory goes, you can get more railroad in the same space be wrapping the track around the walls and leaving the center open for operators, namely, you and me. I also suspect that the move away from island style layouts has something to do with some modeler's desire to distance themselves from the perception that they're just "playing with a train set." Fortunately, I've never cared about such perceptions and am the first to admit to having a heap of fun playing with trains.

Anyway, in my quest to expand the layout from its original island I've mostly focused on trying to morph the plan into some semblance of an around the walls design. This has been a largely frustrating exercise because the two design styles have such different requirements. I finally got to the point where I was almost ready to tear out everything I've already built and start over again from scratch. Surely a true around the walls style plan with shadowbox type modules and a nifty lighting valance would be much more sensible, wouldn't it? Then Verne said something that made everything click into place. He said that Thunder Mesa has depth. Yes, scenic depth is exactly what you get with an island style design and exactly what you often lose with boxed-in shelves along the wall. Eureka!

Turns out I really like depth, which, along with dramatic vertical separation is one of the defining characteristics of my particular modeling style. So it was back to the drawing board again. I was already drawing up a new plan to work San Lorenzo into the layout and to take advantage of the space recently vacated by the N scale Pagosa & Southern. I took the opportunity to create something with maximum scenic depth and multiple viewing angles for the Thunder Mesa island. Moving the Thunder Mesa section out from the wall also opened up much needed space for the town, passing tracks, yard and engine facilities.

The focus is on scenery, structures and continuous running on this folded dog bone style plan. Room for a new engine service facility at upper left was an unexpected bonus. Grid spacing on the plan is 12". Aisle width is 30". The thin blue line represents an around the walls backdrop. Tip: to see the plan full size, right click and choose "Open link in new tab."


If I were to list my model railroading interests in order of importance, "scenery" and "structure building" would be way up at the top and "realistic operations" would be down somewhere near the bottom just above "wiring." Truth is, I'm much more of a model builder than an operator of miniature railroads and that's just fine. I like nice looking trains rolling through amazing scenery. This new plan is designed to emphasize those druthers while making the most of my art studio's givens. The mainline is about as uncomplicated as I can make it, with trains starting and finishing their runs in good old Thunder Mesa. I might add a couple of hidden staging tracks under San Lorenzo but that's still up in the air at this point. The Calico line is separate once again and stays up high to twist and turn through Calico Mountain on some 12" radius curves. It now transfers ore to the Thunder Mesa line via a tipple. The village of San Lorenzo is featured on a high bluff above the tracks, and will be complimented by the Indian Pueblos on one side, and the mining camp of Estrella Gulch on the other. Coyote Canyon will be a very dramatic scene with a high steal viaduct, natural bridge and teetering hoodoos. The town of Thunder Mesa will be rotated and moved down slope a bit, closer to the tracks for better viewing of the detailed structures. Another bonus of this plan is somewhat wider radius curves on the new sections.

I'm very happy with the new plan and think it offers just the kind of modeling opportunities and challenges that I want. The scenes will be detailed, layered and deep, with a wall-mounted backdrop wrapping around on three sides. I'm also thrilled to be bringing San Lorenzo over to Thunder Mesa country. I was planning on modeling a sleepy border town and Verne's excellent diorama fits the bill perfectly. I want to thank the readers of this blog who have followed along through all of the changes and twists in the design process. There are a few central ideas that I've been drilling down to and I think I'm getting much closer now. As always, question and comments are welcome below. Adios for now, amigos!

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!

Edit 10/24/14: Just a couple of weeks later and I've completely revamped and updated the entire plan. See the updated plan here.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...