Monday, September 9, 2013

Multi-Project Update

A train snakes its way through Dinosaur Gap on a moonlit night.

My good intentions for posting a new weekly update every Monday were thwarted last week by a total hard-drive melt down. The good news is that all my data was saved and things are now back to normal. Meanwhile, it's been a busy couple of weeks in Thunder Mesa country with many projects moving along toward completion. Expansion progress continues, Rainbow Caverns are beginning to take shape, a new turntable has appeared in Thunder Mesa, the town itself has relocated and expanded, and work has begun on a small depot.

Expansion Progress

Track has been laid on the new layout sections and I'm finally able to run trains again! Much work is still needed on the Calico corner section but the main loop around and through Thunder Mesa is now complete.

Testing a train on the new loop section. Everything works! I'm using Peco On30 flex-track and turnouts throughout the layout. It doesn't have the finer scale appearance of Micro Engineering track, but it operates flawlessly.

The hidden wye within Rainbow Caverns. The unfinished foreground track will go to the new Calico section and "points beyond." I lay my track on Midwest HO scale cork roadbed using contact cement and rail spikes here and there as needed.

No track yet on the Calico section. I'm having second thoughts about the track arrangement here and how it will lead into the next section. Plans are still up in the air and I might change the route before laying down the track.


Rainbow Caverns

With the new loop completed I was able to rough in the area that will become Rainbow Caverns. The caverns will be filled with cool lighting and artificial water affects and should become a real focal point of the layout. The trickiest part so far has been planning for and hiding the necessary access to reach trains and track when the need arises.

The canyon wall on the backside of Thunder Mesa roughed in with 1" Polystyrene foam. The cave-like openings will be viewing windows into Rainbow Caverns. The pink foam is carved to shape with a hot wire cutter.

Closer look at the cave opening. Not much to see here yet. The interior has been painted flat black. 

A large piece of the cliff-face is removable to provide access to the Caverns. The removable section is at left. Most of the town now also sits atop a removable foam access hatch.

The Caverns will are being built as a series of shadow-box like vignettes that the trains will pass through. The first two scenes will be reminiscent of great limestone caverns like Carlsbad or Mammoth Cave, and the third will be a major underground mining scene like the famous "Glory Hole" on Knott's Calico Mine Ride. The mine scene will tie into the On18 Calico Gold Mine Diorama to be built above the new Calico section.

A Turntable for Thunder Mesa

The new track plan calls for a 36' turntable at Thunder Mesa. This will be vital to operations as it not only provides a way to turn trains, but also acts as a switch, enabling the locomotive to run around its train. I first saw this type of track arrangement on John Allen's HOn3 Devil's Gulch and Hellengone and always though it a perfect solution for a narrow gauge railroad built in a tight space.

36' turntable at Thunder Mesa. Note the timber cribbing retaining wall around the back of the TT.

I started with a Walther's 120' N scale manual turntable. Sorry to say I cannot really recommend this kit. The castings are very rough and covered with flash and the instructions are a joke. I used it because the pit is the right size and I had it lying around from my old N scale days. 

Once the pit is painted and weathered it doesn't look too bad. I painted it with Krylon flat Grey Primer and a light overspray of Krylon light tan for a nice concrete color. The pit rails was painted with rust colored acrylics and the weathering is done with colored chalks. I drew "cracks" into the concrete with a hard lead pencil and then punched them up here and there with a fine point Sharpie. 

I built an On30 bridge on top of the N scale girders using scale 6"x8"x8' ties stained with a combination of Minwax Dark Walnut and Early American. I use the Minwax touch-up stain pens to stain most of my wood. 

I laid out the rails using a length of Peco On30 flex-track - keeping a few ties on at each end helps to keep thing in gauge. The rail was then spiked down with medium rail spikes from Micro Mark; a good match for the cast in spike detail on Peco track. The rails were painted using Floquil paint markers Rail Brown and Rust. Feeder wires were also soldered to the underside of each rail at this time. The wires extend through the center of the bridge and will connect to a DCC auto reversing unite below the layout.

The rails were trimmed to length and aligned with the approach track on the layout before final spiking. Scale 6"x6" guard timbers were added along the ends of ties along with 1"x12" catwalks on each side. Grandt Line nut, bolt, washer castings finish the bridge.

Finally, the turntable was leveled and shimmed to meet up perfectly with the approach track. Just waiting on delivery of an MRC auto-reversing unit to complete the wiring. The turntable is not motored but I'm engineering a simple gear assembly to manually turn it from the layout fascia.

Moving the Town

Once I started roughing in the scenery around the turntable area it became apparent that there would be much more room for the little mining town than there had been when it was squeezed in behind and above the Big Thunder Mill. The original plan for this area called for a mine of some kind, but that will now be located more logically closer to the mill, while the town will be more fully fleshed out and expanded in the area above the tunnel.

The little mining town of Thunder Mesa. Most of the buildings here are temporary paper-models based on the original Rainbow Ridge structures at Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland. These quick and easy mock-ups are very helpful when layout out a scene like this. The amphitheater looking area behind the turntable will be detailed with rock-work and timber-cribbing retaining walls. This was a neat detail on Malcolm Furlow's HOn3 Denver & Rio Chama Western that I always really liked and wanted to emulate. To the left of the turntable will be a steep, switchbacking road up to the mesa top.

Thunder Mesa Depot

Since, in my world, the Big Thunder Mill is used to process ore rather than load tourists as it does at Disneyland, I knew that some kind of small depot would be needed for the scenic excursion trains. This depot will be the first actual structure built for the layout (other than bridges) and should make for an interesting and detailed foreground scene. The depot building itself will be tiny, with a footprint of just 10'x16' - really not much more than a ticket office and small covered waiting area. The platform will be bigger however, about 50' long by 20' at its widest. Here's how I built the platform:

The first step was to create some new real estate for the depot along the layout's front edge. This 24"x7" bump-out is the same width as the existing "coffee-shelf" and so adds nothing to the overall footprint of the layout. Some stock pens are also planned for next to the depot.

I want a strong a durable base for my structure so I'm using 1/4" MDF. Here is is cut to the basic shape of the platform. 

The 1/4" thickness of the MDF is perfect for simulating the look of scale 12"x12" timbers. I dragged the blade of a razor saw along the edges to simulate woodgrain and used a utility knife to carve lines, simulating the ends of 12' long timbers. 

Once stained with Minwax Dark Walnut and Early American, the MDF is very difficult to tell from dimensional strip-wood. 

Laying out lines every 1/4" for the scale 1"x12" decking. This will help keep things straight. 

The decking in place. The white square is a piece of illustration board glued to the MDF for the ticket office footprint. The actual floor will be built on top of this. 

I used a hard 5H pencil to press nail holes into the decking. 

Weathering done with colored chalks. This would be harder to do once the structure is attached. 

Checking the fit on the layout.

Here's a preview of the depot itself. I laid out the basic shape and built a card-stock mock-up to test clearances etc. This will act as my plan for building the actual structure.


Okay! That's about it for this week. Be sure to check back next Monday for the next update on these and many other projects. (God willing and the computer don't crash!)

Thanks for checking in!


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