Sunday, October 28, 2012

September ~ October Update

I've fallen a bit behind in updating the blog but the good news is that a lot has been happening out in Thunder Mesa Country!

Overall view of the layout as it looks today.
Geyser Gulch still needs a lot of work, including its trestle bridge,
but just beyond in Dinosaur Gap the final rock work is starting to take shape.

Building Dinosaur Gap and a base for Baxter's Butte

Much of the work over the last two months has been centered around the left side of the layout where the track makes a sweeping S-curve before plunging into Rainbow Caverns. I'm calling this scene "Dinosaur Gap" because of the T-Rex skeleton that will be exposed just above the track grade, somewhat similar to the scene below at Disneyland.

My dino hasn't been installed yet, but I've laid the groundwork for the scene, while at the same time finishing the tunnel entrance to Rainbow Caverns and adding a solid base for the removable upper section of Baxter's Butte (AKA Big Thunder Mt). Here's a photo progression of the scene as it takes shape.

The first step was to cut and install a piece 1/4" masonite in the exact shape
of the butte's footprint. It was then glued into place and the track for the new
mine spur was laid over the top. The 1/4" masonite is the same height as the
HO scale cork roadbed I am using.
Next, plaster cloth was used to blend the masonite "footprint" with the layers of
pink insulation foam below.
Scultamold was applied over the plaster cloth and pink foam, adding texture,
filling gaps and blending everything together. More rock facets and faces were
carved into the Scultamold at this time.
Additional detail rock carvings were sculpted from Balsa Foam and blended
in with Spackle and Scultamold.
After drying for about 48 hours, the entire area now ready for paint.
I paint everything with a coat of tan latex paint, this seals the foam carvings
and helps blend everything together. I use a foam brush for this, dabbing
paint into all of the nooks and crannies.
After painting.
After the base coat is dry, diluted India ink is applied with a spray bottle to
darken all of the cracks and crevasses.
Here's how it looks after the India ink flows into the texture and dries.
Now it's time for the fun part, painting with acrylics! These are the basic
colors and brushes I use.

This is where things get creative. First I use Raw Sienna, dabbing and dry-brushing
over the surface of the rocks but leaving the India ink shadows to show through.
Next I rub in some Burnt Umber, using it sparingly and only where
I want the darkest shadows.
Now highlights a dry-brushed on with Buff Titanium, keeping in mind
which layers of rock I want to be lighter than the others
Last are the final details, scrubbing and blending the colors together,
adding more highlights where needed and dry-brushing in
some darker streaks where water has stained the rocks.
And here is the finished paint job with a few details added.
Next the track will be painted and ballast and ground cover
added, along with more details to complete the scene.
The area just above the track on the right is where the dinosaur bones will
be located. The flat, pedestal looking rocks on the left are for teetering boulders.

Mock-Up Land

I'm a firm believer in using paper mock-ups to test structure size and placement. It's a lot easier to make changes to a scene at this stage than after detailed structures have been built and placed.

A paper and foamboard mock-up of Big Thunder station.
Station and water tower.
On the left will be an open air engine shed, on the right is a mock-up for an
ore bin.

Designing an Excursion Car

Since my railroad represents a fictional prototype for the Big Thunder attractions it frees me up to design things that look as if they could have inspired Disney Imagineers without being direct copies of what is found at the parks. My goal is to create designs with a strong "family resemblance" to the Disney trains while still looking as if they could actually have existed on a real world railroad somewhere.

In my universe, the Thunder Mesa line was a down-on-its-luck ore carrier that was discovered and saved by railfans and tourists. While it still moves ore from the mines from time to time, its main business has shifted to providing scenic rail excursions through the spectacular natural wonders of the Thunder Mesa area. So, my thinking goes, how would an old mining line shift to carrying tourists? Well, by converting old ore cars to excursion cars of course!

Here's my first pass at designing a 12' ore car converted to excursion service.
Note that this is not an actual model but was created through the magic of Photoshop.
And here is the final design (for now).  I decided a 14' car would be more
practical and also added a canopy version to provide deluxe, first class
service for my 1/4" scale guests. The cars will be built on cut-down
Bachmann flatcar frames.

Next Update:

Well, that's enough for this time. Next update I'll be painting track, adding some line-side details and who knows what else. 'Till then, happy trails!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

August Update

I haven't had much time to work on the railroad this summer, but here's an update on the small amount of progress that has been made since June.

The final shape of things is starting to come together with a bit more scenery roughed in and a new upper level mining spur added.

This new line tunnels right through the heart of Baxter's Butte to feed an ore tipple above the main tracks. Once completed, this track will feature the same back and forth automation as the lower line in town, using the same Circuitron electronics described in the last post.

And last but not least, The TMMC has acquired some new rolling stock in the form of Bachmann's excellent side dump ore cars. These cars are die-cast metal and the side dump mechanism works very smoothly. They'll be repainted 'Thunder Mesa Gold' before all is said and done.

That's about it for now, hope everyone is having a great summer and I look forward to getting more work done on the railroad once things slow down in the fall.

Update 9/7/2013:
The upper level line has been converted to On18 and will soon connect to a Calico Gold Mining diorama on the expanded TMMC.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Train Automation

Now that the main loop of track is complete and running&nbsp I thought it would be fun to add more visual interest with a second train shunting automatically back and forth on the station and mine spurs as the first train racks up miles on the main loop. To accomplish this, I picked up a Circuitron AR-2 auto-reverse circuit at my local hobby shop.

The AR-2 circuit board.

The AR-2 comes complete with a pair of optical sensors that must be installed between the ties at either end of the train's run.

One of the tiny optical sensors ready to be installed between the rails.
Now, wiring and electronics are probably my weakest skills in this hobby, but I was able to follow the simple instructions and diagrams without trouble and the installation went off without a hitch.

Optical sensors installed at both ends of the run.
The two optical sensors are installed in the desired positions on the layout and then wired to the circuit board. Power feeders are soldered between the rails and the board and then between the board and a DC power pack. The final step is to attach power to the unit from a 13 to 18 volt AC or DC power source. I used the 18V AC terminals on an old MRC power pack (note that exceeding 18V AC will most likely burn up the unit and void the warranty).

Everything wired up, soldered and ready to test.
A great advantage of the AR-2 is that you can set a timed delay at each stop, from a few seconds to a few minutes. I set mine to delay about 20 seconds at each stop.

I should mention that since this is basically just an automated polarity reversing system it is only useful with DC systems and will not work for DCC. Of course, I'm a big believer in having my cake and eating it too so I'll be wiring the layout for both traditional DC and Digital Command Control. When all the wiring is done I'll be able to flip a switch or two and choose between automation like this, DC cab control or full DCC. If I do it right, I'll even be able to operate some blocks on DCC and others on DC.

I tend to put off wiring projects as long as possible but this one only took about an hour to complete and now I have two trains running on Thunder Mesa! Thanks to Circuitron for creating a great product that has me excited about other automation and animation possibilites for the railroad. More to come!

Update 9/7/2013:
Although the Circuitron AR-2 has performed flawlessly, I am no longer using it on the layout. As the railroad has grown, my focus has shifted from simple display to more realistic operation and I'm now using DCC to run trains almost exclusively.  The AR-2 unit has been uninstalled from the layout, but I may bring it back in the future to automate trains on the upper level On18 Calico line.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Adding a Fascia

I had a little time to work on the railroad over the last few days and decided to go ahead and install the fascia or profile boards. This really gives a nice, finished look to the layout and helps to define the edges of the little world I'm creating. I used 1/8" masonite attached with Liquid Nails and clamped in place with 1" drywall screws. Once the adhesive cures completely, I'll back out all the screws, fill the holes with wood putty and get it ready for painting.

Overall view.

Future location of the Geyser Gulch trestle.
Now, how am I going to make those geysers erupt? Hmmm.
While adding the fascia I also completed work on the Rainbow Caverns show building. This is basically a masonite and black foamcore box that will hold the black-lit cavern effects I'm planning while also acting as a support structure for the upper levels of Thunder Mesa town. I incorporated a hinged access hatch into the fascia for maintenance and photography inside the caverns. It's held in place with magnetic cabinate latches and swings down out of the way when opened.

 Rainbow Caverns show building and access hatch.
The tunnel entrance will be disguised with rock work.

Viewing portal for Rainbow Caverns.

Access hatch when open.

Rainbow Caverns show building from the Thunder Mesa side.
Now that the major carpentry is finished the logical next step would be to finish roughing in the scenery. I might do that, or I might start work on some long delayed locomotive or rolling stock projects. Or I might do something completely different like get the backdrop painted. Who knows? The wonderful thing about a model railroad is that there is never any shortage of interesting projects to work on!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Golden Spike!

Hooray! Track laying is now complete on the Thunder Mesa Mining Co! Now I can finally get to the fun part of actually running some trains. Even though it's a small layout, it's still a thrill to lay that last bit of track, hook up the power pack and watch the trains roll on by. Here's a quick 2 minute video I put together as I tested track and connections.

I've used Peco code 100 On30 track throughout. It's extremely well made, reliable and matches the rustic look I'm going for on Thunder Mesa perfectly. Plus, I had a lot of it left over from the previous layout.

Of course, laying the golden spike on a model railroad doesn't mean you're anywhere near finished. There's still tons of work to be done on scenery, structures and special effects. Now that trains are rolling, I'm even more motivated to tackel those big projects. See you on down the line!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A New Home for the TMMC

"Helicopter view" from the studio ceiling.

Exciting news in Thunder Mesa Country, the TMMC has officially moved to its new home in my refurbished art studio! The studio is a cosy 16'x16' outbuilding on my property with one large corner dedicated entirely to trains. I knew that I wanted to get the layout moved to this new (and hopefully permanent) location before work got any further along. Fortunately, the layout was designed to be portable and the top detaches easily from the supports. In addition, the legs for the trestle-like base are fitted with castors so it was a simple matter for my oldest son and I to carry and roll the whole shebang from our dusty garage to its bright new home.

Primary viewing angle. That white wall will soon be covered
with a blue sky backdrop.
The layout is lit by compact fluorescent bulbs in six adjustable fixtures, giving plenty of light for good photography. And speaking of photography, once the backdrop is installed, castors will allow the layout to be rotated so that blue sky, rather than studio clutter, always shows up behind the scenery.

View from the Rainbow Caverns side with my workbench and
some memorabilia visible beyond.
Of course, the exterior of my studio still has much work to be done on it, including replacing some rotted wall boards and repainting. When all is said and done though, "Dave's Barn" should be a great place to work, play and run some trains!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rock Work 101: Part II

Okay, enough theory! Let's carve some rocks!

The formation I'm currently working on is one I call Baxter's Butte, roughly modeled after all the different versions of the Big Thunder spires. When completed it will tower 100 scale feet above the railroad bed and should serve as a striking central scenic feature for the railroad. Follow along with the photo captions  and the video to see how I go about making it.

Here are most of the basic tools and materials I use to make my foreground rock formations. The main ingredient is a polyurethane carving media called Balsa Foam. This stuff comes in different densities but I prefer the soft version for sandstone rock work. I find the 9x12x1" sheets to be most flexible since I like to work on small sections and then build up a formation from several pieces.

The coping saw is used for cutting out basic shapes in the foam and the good old #11 X-Acto knife is the primary carving tool.

The stuff in the caulking gun is Loctite Power Grab all-purpose adhesive, the best thing I have found for sticking foam to foam or to anything else. It grabs hold instantly but still allows a working time of 15 -20 minutes. For laminating two or more slabs together though, I still use yellow carpenter's glue and pile some heavy books on overnight.

This photo illustrates the sectional nature of the butte and also the rock layers that are being simulated. Three, 9x12x1" sheets of Balsa Foam have been used to construct the butte so far and it narrows from a roughly 1" (4 scale feet) thickness at the top to about 5" (20 scale feet) at the base. This was achieved by building downward in sections from the top and adding more laminated slabs for thickness toward the bottom. When completed, the Butte will sit atop a sloping base of polystyrene foam, built up in layers to achieve the desired height. It should be noted the pink polystyrene foam insulation is much less expensive than Balsa Foam which costs about $10 a 9x12" sheet!

My preferred rock carving tool is a #11 X-Acto knife. The good news is that it doesn't need to be particularly sharp so now I have a use for all of those old dull blades I've been saving. Balsa Foam has a texture that is very similar to actual sandstone and it is an absolute pleasure to carve. I usually work on one small area at a time, bringing it to a near state of completion before moving on to the next. There are a few simple techniques and tricks to this that anyone can master. It all starts with a downward carving motion as shown above.

Then I use a side to side scraping motion to create facets in the rock. It's important to remember that sandstone is basically a crystalline structured rock and therefore breaks and splits at right angles. Over time, weathering wears some of these angles smooth and we get the myriad facets of rock that we see throughout canyon country. From a distance, these facets often look like lines, but when carving them you should always try to get a dimensional look where the different facets meet, with one sticking out a little more or a little less than the other. That's what makes the rocks look real.

Cutting and whittling is used to define specific line breaks in the rocks, like where two layers come together. This gives you something to carve down to when creating the rock facets. I always measure and lay these important horizontal lines out in pencil before carving so that they stay uniform throughout. At the same time though, you don't always want these horizontal lines to be perfect. They should be lost and found, broken in places by rock falls or crevices. When carving rocks it's important to remember that you're not making a brick wall, things should look a little chaotic and random. This is Nature after all. It can be a challenge. Humans tend to look for and create patterns and often times I've found that the row of brocken rocks I've just created all look a little too perfectly spaced. If that happens, just break it up some more, remembering to be as random as you can.

A medium sanding block is used to smooth and flatten surfaces, remove large bits of material quickly, and to remove mistakes and prepare an area for re-carving. 

The last tool in the box is spackel. I use it to fill gaps between slabs and to smooth transitions between separate pieces of foam. Woodland Scenics sells a product they call "Foam Putty" to do this very thing. As far as I can tell it is exactly the same stuff as painter's spackling compound except for twice the price. I use Patch N Paint from Home Depot.
Here's a quick video demo showing a little rock carving.


In the next part of this series I'll be showing how I paint the rocks with artists acrylics and prepare to install them on the layout. If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments section or come join the conversation over at

Click here for part III of this series.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rock Work 101: Part I

The first hand carved rock formation on the TMMC, McKennon Arch
My Thunder Mesa Mining Company may be only 18 square feet but a large portion of that space will be covered entirely with hand-sculpted rock work. There are many tried and true techniques for making rocks for model railroads and most of them involve using molds and heavy plaster. While that might work fine for modeling Pennsylvania shale or  Rocky Mountain cliff faces, it's really not the best way to depict the spectacular buttes, arches, hoodoos and mesas of Southwestern Canyon Country. These unique, stand alone formations call for a different set of techniques and in the next few posts I'll be detailing how I go about creating them.

Modeling Geology

First off, what we're really modeling here is a specific type of geology - not just random "rocks." One thing that makes the artificial rocks at Disney parks so convincing is the Imagineers basic understanding of the geologic features required for place-making in their story. In the case of the Big Thunder attractions Tony Baxter and his team did a great deal of research into places like Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon to make their make-believe formations look and feel believable.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Big Thunder Mountain, Disneyland, CA.
See the resemblance?
While the buttes and hoodoos of Big Thunder at Disneyland reflect a strong Bryce Canyon influence, the Walt Disney World, Paris, and Tokyo versions, while slightly different from each other, all have more of a Monument Valley flavor.

Monument Valley, AZ-UT

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Tokyo Disneyland

Disneyland Paris
What they all have in common is an attempt to artistically recreate the eroded layers of sedimentary rock that are so emblematic of the American Southwest. This region has been alternately inundated by inland seas and windblown sand over the eons, leaving behind the remarkable, colorful layers of sandstone, limestone and shale that have been exposed and sculpted by erosion. Erosion, by the way, is nothing but a fancy word for weather and a whole lot of time. To model these rocks convincingly then, one must attempt to imitate the effects of erosion on layers of sedimentary rock. But which rocks?

Going Back to the Source

While I could just attempt to recreate what exists in the parks, I find it more fun and interesting to do a little "imagineering" of my own and try to design things with the same sort of process that WDI uses. That means going back to the original sources of inspiration and building from there. Personally, my favorite formations in the southwest are located in and around Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, an area in which I've spent a lot of time and know fairly well. 

Park Avenue, Arches National Park

The Organ, Arches National Park

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Doesn't get much more spectacular than that does it? The only thing missing is a train ride!

So, now, with the geology of a specific region chosen the job of recreating it in miniature can really begin. The Moab area has several thick layers of red sandstone known collectively as the Entrada formation. These layers erode into fanciful fins, balancing rocks, arches and bridges. Just below the Entrada is the lumpy, limestone Carmel formation which often resembles stacked blocks of stone and forms pedestals for the balanced rocks and hoodoos above. Below the Carmel formation is the cream colored Navajo Sandstone, a dome forming layer which is actually the petrified remains of an ancient blowing sand desert. Understanding where these layers are in relation to each other and how they characteristically erode brings a unified design to the entire model and a certain believability that just randomly placing rocks could never duplicate.

Building a Butte

Baxter's Butte (so far) on the TMMC.

I like the fact that each of the parks has its own unique version of Big Thunder Mountain. My goal for the TMMC is to design and build yet another version; something with a strong "family resemblance" to what's at the parks while still being a little different. With that in mind I went to work, sculpting in polyurethane foam. Right away I deviated from my chosen geology and added in an extra layer of rock about halfway up Baxter's Butte (aka Big Thunder Mt.) Oh, well, it's an artist's prerogative to tweak nature here and there until things look right! Right now things are looking a little too flat to my eyes and I'm not at all sure about the natural bridge and might just lose it. One nice thing about working in foam is that it is very easy to make changes.

I'll go into the details of how I construct and carve these rocks, including the tools and materials used, in my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

Click here for part II of this series.
Click here for part III of this series.
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