Monday, February 17, 2014

Building Big Thunder Saloon: Part I

Big Thunder Saloon is one of the slightly less than full-scale structures making up a mining boom-town on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction at Disneyland in California. Like the other structures, the saloon was once part of the town of Rainbow Ridge on the original Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland. I'll be doing my best to recreate many of these structures in O scale for the TMMC.

Creating a Plan

As I don't have ready access to original blueprints in the Disney archives, I had to create my own plan for Big Thunder Saloon. I used photos from the park and known dimensions of things like doors and board widths to make educated guesses about the size and shape of the structure. For example, the false front of the structure is board and batten. That usually means 12" wide boards with 1" x 2" battens. Knowing this makes it easy to guesstimate the width of the structure. Certain things like the depth of the building could only be guessed at, but, as usual, my goal was not to make an exact copy, but rather a handsome model that captures the look and feel of the original.

My plan for Big Thunder Saloon was created in Adobe Illustrator. As usual, I altered things a bit during construction, mostly by adding about 2 more inches (8 scales feet) to the depth of the structure. It was a little hard to believe how "Poker, Billiards, Entertainment and Dancing" could all take place in a structure this small! A PDF of this plan can be downloaded for free here.

The plan was created some years ago for an earlier version of the TMMC. This paper mock-up was built from the plan and has acted as a placeholder for the saloon ever since. It's high time to replace it with an actual structure.

Photo-Texture Modeling

One big challenge in creating a structure like this is replicating the fancy Victorian era sign painting on the facade. Trying to hand paint something like this on a wooden or styrene structure often ends in mixed results at best, even for someone with an artistic bent and steady hands. My solution was to to turn once again to Photo-texture modeling. This is a technique I've used before with good success on things like my Combine 101 project. The technique uses hi-res photographic textures of wood, metal or stone surfaces, composited with text and building details in a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop. The composited image is then printed out on heavy paper and used as the actual building materials or walls of a structure. When properly layered and finished with 3-D details like door and window castings, the photo-textures can create a very convincing, eye-fooling illusion of reality. A great many hi-res textures are available for free download at sites like

Follow along with the photos and captions below to see how printed paper can become a convincing model. 

Here is the photo of painted wooden planks that was used as a starting point for the facade of my saloon. The photo was resized, color-corrected and cut and pasted to the correct dimensions in Adobe Photoshop.

Here the photo-textures have been composited into the original plan with the text layered on top. Some pieces like the "Poker and Billiards" sign have been separated out for ease of construction. Battens were created for the board and batten siding by cutting and pasting a single plank repeatedly across the facade, adjusting shade and saturation on each for variety and visual interest. The lettering was faded into the wood texture using transparency and subtle blur effects. The gray areas will be cut out for Grandt Line door and window castings.

Two copies of the facade were printed out full size on 32 lb HP Premium Presentation Paper using an Epson R1800 inkjet printer. 3M 45 General Purpose spray adhesive was used to coat the back of one printout and that was laminated to 1/16" thick Strathmore illustration board. This results in a wall about 3 scale inches thick. The facade, door and window openings and rear roof peak were cut out with a sharp #11 hobby knife and modified Grandt Line castings were popped in to check the fit.

Using the same technique, the second copy was laminated to a thinner sheet of 100 lb Bristol Board and each batten was cut from this sheet, resulting in battens about 1 scale inch deep. The door and window assembly was built up with illustration board and castings, then primed and painted a dark brown with artist's acrylics. All of this was glued in place and then the battens were cut to length and glued in place around it.

An interior wall was cut from 1/16" thick illustration board with door and window openings to match the facade. Wood grain was simulated by dragging a fine-toothed razor saw blade over the illustration board and then individual 12" wide boards were scribed into the surface with a hobby knife. The boards were stained with a very thin 50:50 mixture of Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue artist's acrylics. Individual boards were picked out for extra weathering, especially those that will show above the roof line, and then nail holes were added with the tip of a hard HB pencil. The interior wall was then laminated to the back of the facade using 3M 45 General Purpose spray adhesive resulting in a wall that's a prototypical 6 scale inches thick.

Corner trim and the fancy cornice were built up using dimensional strip wood, painted with an orange-brown mixture of artist's acrylics. Buff Titanium (a very light tan) was dry-brushed over all the wooden and plastic parts to age them and highlight details. No further weathering is needed or recommended on the printed textures since it tends to obscure rather than enhance the printed detail.

Finally, rafters were added to the interior wall to support a removable roof. The rafters are not wood, but textured and painted illustration board.

With the battens and other 3-D details in place the illusion is complete. Here the advantages of photo-texture modeling become clear. It would be extremely difficult to create the look of perfect lettering painted over the board and batten surface using any other technique that I know of.

That's about all for this time. In the next installment of this build I'll detail construction of the building foundations and show a quick and easy way to make realistic looking log walls from wooden dowels. Adios for now!

Click here for part II of this series.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to present this step by step - it's both inspirational and useful.

    1. You're very welcome. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Dave, I've always been intrigued by those structures at Disneyland. I remember when they were part of Nature's Wonderland. Thanks for outlining your technique. One of these days, you'll have to start charging us to read the blog!

    1. Thanks Ted. I'm more than happy to share my techniques. Charging would take the fun out of it!


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