Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Unfinished Business

As 2015 draws to a close, it's only natural to look back at what was accomplished in the past year and to think about all that still needs to be done. The TMMC has come a long way this year, with the entire mainline now complete through the expansion areas, a more logical layout for the town, and scenic work well underway in Rainbow Caverns and Hanging Rock. Still, there's much yet to be done. So many projects in fact that at times it can be a little overwhelming and I start to wonder if maybe I haven't bitten off more than I can chew. Thunder Mesa isn't really a very big model railroad, but the high level of detail, scratchbuilt structures, animation and lighting effects means that progress can be rather slow at times. Still, my enthusiasm for the project remains high, and there are a number of projects that I'm looking forward to tackling in the new year.

So, without further ado, here's a look ahead at some of the TMMC's "unfinished business" that I'd like to get done in 2016.

Geyser Gulch

This lone, temporary trestle bent has been standing in for a real bridge over Geyser Gulch for longer than I care to admit. I've drawn up plans for the bridge, purchased materials, and even figured out a way to make "Old Unfaithful" geyser erupt in the background. I just need to make time to finally finish this signature scene.

Thunder Mesa Mill

Just to the right of Big Thunder Creek stands this paper mock-up of Thunder Mesa Mill, based loosely on the boarding area structure for Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland. This is where all of the ore from the mines at Calico and Big Thunder Camp gets processed before being shipped out to the wider world. As such, it's pretty important to the economic lifeblood of the railroad. It's also a signature scene that really helps to establish the story of the railroad. Replacing this mock-up with a fully detailed, scratchbuilt structure is high on my list of priorities for the new year.

The Backdrop

Don't be fooled by the pretty photos I post, most of the walls around the TMMC layout are still embarrassingly bare. I've been using temporary backdrops for most photos and Photoshop composites for the really arty ones. But help is on the way. The above image is a low-res version of a digital painting I created that will be printed upon 3oz vinyl scrim and then affixed to the layout room walls. This will give me a seamless sky backdrop that wraps around three sides of the layout. Landscape features like distant buttes and mesas will then be painted on 1/8" hardboard and mounted between the 3-D layout scenery and the sky backdrop. This should make for some dramatic scenes that look like they go on forever.

Thunder Mesa Town

Hoo-boy, there's loads to do here. Other than the depot and Big Thunder Saloon, nearly everything in town is still in the paper model mock-up stage. As usual, I'll have to take it one structure at a time and finish what I can. It's highly doubtful that I'll get all those little building done in the coming year, but I would like to make a good start on the scenery and ground cover and then tackle as many of them as I can. We'll see what happens.

Turntable and Engine House

Well, at least the water tank is finished (but that might be moving to Hanging Rock). The current turntable here is unpowered and a hold-over from an earlier version of the railroad. I'd like to replace it this year with one of the fine A-frame TT's from Kitwood Hill Models. The engine house is planned as a white-plastered stone structure to harmonize with the adobe structures of nearby San Lorenzo. Time will tell if that plan pans out or I decide to go with something else. Obviously, the turntable approach track and engine house tracks are waiting for more permanent structures to be built. All of the track in this area needs paint, ballast and final detailing.

Rainbow Caverns and Big Thunder Camp

These two go together because one sits right on top of the other. I've made some good progress on the interior of Rainbow Caverns this year, but as you can see the exterior scenery is still far from finished. I'd like to finish the rest of the interior scenes this coming year and complete the rockwork cave openings on the exterior. As for Big Thunder Camp, it's planned as a major mining scene with several scratchbuilt structures. Sounds like a good candidate for my 2017 list. In 2016, I'll be happy to get the final track laid up there and all the wiring done for the lighting and animation to come.

Natural Arch Bridge

This is the connecting bit of scenery between Hanging Rock on the left and Rainbow Caverns on the right. It shouldn't take very long to finish up this scene once the branchline track to Big Thunder Camp is laid across the top of the bridge.

Hanging Rock

This scene is still a little less than half finished, mostly because the plans are not yet 100% firm in my mind. Olson & Furlow's place still needs LED lighting installed and a few more outlaw figures. A small depot made from an old combine car is planned for the near side of the tracks, while an ore tipple, shack and water tank will probably be against the cliffs on the other side. There's much more rockwork to be finished and a couple of tunnel portals to detail too. The tunnel interiors will be a project all their own.


Last but not least is the portable On18 Calico mini-layout that so far exists only in the planning stages. This almost qualifies as a substantial model railroad project all on its own and I could probably spend most of 2016 working on it and nothing else. The latest plan, shown above, is slightly simplified from the earlier figure eight scheme proposed. It hews a little closer to the Knott's Berry Farm inspiration now while promising to be easier to operate. My tests with N scale/On18 mechanisms told me that they didn't much like the 6% grade I had in mind before. This flat, simple loop now gives me room for an underground "Glory Hole" mining scene and some animated blasting on the other end. I have no illusions about finishing Calico in the coming year, but I would very much like to make a good start on it and at least get some On18 equipment running. Once again, time will tell.

To 2016 and Beyond

Once again I would like to give my sincere thanks to everyone who has been following along with my modeling efforts on the TMMC. You guys are the best and I'm just getting started. I wish each of you all the blessings of the season, a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. Feliz Navidad, amigos! Adios for now.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Graphite "Solution" for Better Operations

Even though I clean regularly and treat all of the rail on Thunder Mesa with NO-OX (see last month's video log), I still find it useful to treat trouble spots here and there with graphite in order to improve electrical conductivity. In the past I've used graphite sticks for this but personally find them to be a bit messy and inexact. My goal is to get the proper amount of graphite right on the railhead where it's needed, and not in the rail web, ties or ballast. To that end, I've come up with an easy to make and use graphite solution that can be applied where needed with a paint brush. The solution is similar to the commercially available Neolube but is thinner, lasts a long time, and costs substantially less.

To make my graphite solution, I start with "Generals" compressed graphite sticks from my local art supplier. I like the soft 4B sticks since they contain more graphite and less clay than the harder sticks. The softer graphite is also easier to sand down into the fine powder required to make "paintable" graphite.

I start by sanding down almost an entire stick with some fine 220 grit sandpaper, catching all of the graphite dust in a wide, flat-bottomed plastic container.

The next step is to add two or three tablespoons of 70% isopropyl alcohol. The amount is not critical, you just want enough to make a nice brush-able liquid without clumps. You're after a paint, not a paste. 

Mix well with a soft brush, then test the solution on some scrap paper. It should go on a transparent medium gray - not black. If it's too thick, add more alcohol.

When the solution is ready, simply paint it on the rails in any trouble spots. It will go on very dark and then dry lighter. The alcohol will evaporate from the solution very quickly, leaving a thin layer of graphite on the railhead. Wait until it dries completely before running any trains over the area.

You only want a very light layer of graphite on the rails. If it builds up too heavily, simply wipe the excess away with a cotton cloth. Once it is completely dry, run your trains over it and the graphite will be evenly distributed on wheels and track.

Sealed in its plastic container, one batch of graphite solution can last many, many months. If it dries out, simply add more alcohol to reactivate.

Final Thoughts

I'm very pleased with my graphite solution and enjoy how well my short-wheelbase locomotives operate on the layout after applying it. I find it to be particularly useful on turnouts where just a dab between stock rails and points can greatly improve their electrical performance. However, when I first posted this idea on one of the model railroad forums I frequent, I was immediately taken to task for "over-applying" graphite. Dire consequences would ensue, I was warned, if I continued down this dangerous path. There would be short circuits, arcing, loss of traction, and power jumps across gaps with this blasphemous liquid. I was even told that only invisible, microscopic amounts of graphite should ever be placed on the rails, as if it had some magical homeopathic quality that would be destroyed if it was ever used in detectable amounts. I'd like to see the data on that. I have never experienced any of the dire consequences warned about and have only enjoyed happy railroading. It is true that less is indeed more when it comes to graphite, but you do actually need to get some on the rails for it to do any good. What you don't want is a pasty build-up and that is very easy to avoid.

Anyway, I hope that some others will give this solution a try. It works well for me. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween!

Wishing everyone a very happy Halloween from the Thunder Mesa Mining Company!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Raildig Interview

The Marc F.Davis chuffs through Dinosaur Gap. One of 12 new photos featured in my Raildig interview.

I was recently contacted by John Cubbin from who asked if I'd be interested in doing a guest interview about Thunder Mesa. I just love talking about the railroad and sharing ideas with other modelers so I readily agreed. The interview is live online today, along with 12 new photos of the Thunder Mesa layout. You can read it at this link.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Abandoned Mine

Even during daylight hours, the old abandoned Never Mine can still be a little spooky. When a storm blows up from the desert and the wind whispers and moans through the old boards, sinister cries can sometimes be heard echoing deep within the mine. Recently, the creaky door to the shaft house has been swinging open and then suddenly slamming shut. Railroad security thinks there might be a vagrant living up there and wants to send a man up to investigate. Any volunteers?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Trouble Brewing at Hanging Rock

A mysterious stranger has come to town on a pale horse. He's inside Olson & Furlow's place with a glass of whiskey and a well used army revolver. On the cliffs above, the notorious Pequeño Brothers lay in wait. Those dark clouds must be an omen. Old scores will soon to be settled with lead and black powder and a few more bullet holes will adorn the adobe walls at Hanging Rock.

Cloudy sky added in Photoshop, all else as modeled.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Little Town, Big Changes

The town of Thunder Mesa is changing again

Once again the town of Thunder Mesa is getting a makeover. As other structure projects have gotten underway, I've been eyeing the town and seeing how everything works now that all mainline track has been completed. Turns out, I didn't really like where the depot had been located and one change lead to another until the entire town had been reconfigured.

As the layout has grown from it's original 3'x6' configuration, the little Town of Thunder Mesa has been moved and reshuffled again and again; most recently at about this time last year. As my overall vision for the TMMC has evolved, this very central piece of the puzzle has necessarily evolved right along with it.

On the original 3'x6' layout, the town was situated high up behind the mill

With the first layout expansion, the town was moved even higher up behind the new turntable. The road up to town was almost impossibly steep and I was never crazy about the sight lines this configuration offered.

In November of last year I began work on a new town module that could be built at the workbench and then installed on the layout. Once again I tried to keep the general look and feel of the town's inspiration, Disneyland's Rainbow Ridge, with the building stacked in rows facing the track. In the end I felt that, while this works fine for a theme park, it stretches credibility a little too much for what's supposed to be a real town.

Meanwhile, Thunder Mesa Depot and the Rainbow Desert Freight Lines still resided alongside the short spur where they were originally planted back in April. With a new passing siding added as part of the latest expansion, this location began to make less and less sense. Surely, the depot would have been built in the heart of town right along the mainline tracks, just as was done in countless frontier boomtowns throughout the West. Deciding at last to move the depot to a more logical spot is what lead to the latest redesign of Thunder Mesa town.

And here we are today with the depot rotated 180º and placed trackside in the heart of town. A low retaining wall will separate the depot area from the main street where the commercial building of Thunder Mesa will now curve around on a slight rise. Gone is the idea of building the entire town as one removable module. Now, each structure will be its own unit, just I had started to do with Big Thunder Saloon. 

It makes so much more sense now for trains arriving in town to stop here in front of the depot instead of having to back into a siding.

Rainbow Desert Freight Lines has moved to a more logical location too, between the former depot spur and the main road into town.

The new location of Rainbow Desert Freight creates improved sight lines flowing into the main street of town.

As for the old depot spur, this will now be home to some stock pens and perhaps a livery stable.

With this new town configuration firmly established, I feel more comfortable diving into the scenery here and finishing up some of those other structures. I'm really looking forward to replacing all of those paper mock-ups once and for all. They've done their job in the planning stage but now it's time to move on. Breaking up the old depot scene was a little tough, but the lesson here is to never be so enamored with a scene that you are afraid to change it when a better idea comes along.

Thanks for checking in, amigos. I'm juggling a lot of projects right now and there should be much more fun stuff to come in the weeks and months ahead. Adios for now!

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Work often continues until after sunset at the busy mines of Big Thunder Camp. Old Jim takes a moment to admire the view as supplies are being hoisted up from Saguaro Siding below.

Backdrop and smoke added in Photoshop, all else as modeled.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Steaming into Thunder Mesa

The Daily Mixed blasts across Big Thunder Creek behind engine #4, Earl Vilmer. The crew's on time for a change and looking forward to a hot lunch up at Cordelia's Cafe before the return trip to San Lorenzo.

Backdrop and smoke effects added in Photoshop, all else as modeled.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Story of Hanging Rock: Part II ~ Update and Video Log

The scenery at Hanging Rock might only be half finished but that's not going to stop me from having a little fun with Photoshop! Creating images like this helps me to envision the story behind a scene.

Click here for part I

Ready or not, here comes an end of the month update from Thunder Mesa! I haven't had much time for updates this month but scenery work has been progressing on the Hanging Rock section of the layout, and I'm nearly finished with the structure build for Olson & Furlow's Saloon. Even with several things half done, I wanted to share an update and video log on how things are coming along.

Hanging Rockwork

Rockwork and coloring has been completed in the little canyon nook where Olson & Furlow's will find its home. It still needs ground cover, vegetation and other details but here's a quick rundown on how the scene has come together so far.

The canyon walls and rocky ledges of Hanging Rock were built up with layers of 1" thick polystyrene foam insulation - the pink stuff from your local home center. Here the foam has been painted with my scenery base color to better help envision the final scene. There's also a view of the original paper mock-up of Olson & Furlow's, a structure that has evolved a lot from this plan during construction.

Once I was satisfied with the basic shapes, the foam was skinned with a layer of Sculptamold to further texture and define the rocky canyon walls. Sculptamold is a mixture of plaster and cellulose available from American Art Clay Co. at better stocked hobby and craft stores.

After the Sculptamold dries it's time for a coat of my scenery base color: Glidden "French Mustard" flat interior latex paint.

Then I darken the rocks with a spray of diluted black, letting it flow down into all of the cracks and crevices. 

The final paint job is completed using artists' acrylics. The main colors used are Raw Sienna and Unbleached Titanium, with just a little Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber here and there for variety. The colors are lightly dry-brushed on right out of the tube, catching the rough texture of the rocks and letting the under-color and darkened shadows show through. The wooden retaining wall is a hydrocal casting from Woodland Scenics.

Olson & Furlow's

The main structure in Hanging Rock is Olson & Furlow's Saloon and Store, an appropriately character filled establishment built as a tribute to two of may favorite model railroad authors of the past. I'll be writing much more about this scratch-built model for an upcoming column in Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine so I don't want to give away too much here. Suffice to say that I wanted something with a lot of texture, charm and visual appeal to act as a focal point for the scene.

To show a long and storied history, I chose to design the structure with a Victorian wooden upper story built atop an older adobe base. Both the wooden walls and the adobe are modeled with illustration board. The base of the structure is 1/4" thick MDF, carved with a Dremel tool to simulate flagstone.

The colorful vintage signs and posters are a hint at the final super-detailing to come.

The old tarpaper roof on the store section has seen better days. The tarpaper was modeled using strips of 220 grit sandpaper painted flat black. The nail heads are tiny dabs of gray acrylic paint.

There's More on Facebook

I'm so humbled and flattered by those who choose to follow my efforts here on this site and also on social media. Thunder Mesa's Facebook page recently surpassed 500 likes and that's not bad for a quirky little hobby like this. If you like this site I hope you'll also come over and join the conversation on Facebook. There's a lot of new stuff posted there first, mostly about this model railroad, but also interesting stuff about the larger worlds of railroading, model building, themed design and Disney. Thank you.

That's all for this time, amigos. Thanks for checking in. Adios for now!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Putting the Rainbow into Rainbow Caverns

Rainbow Caverns on the TMMC is being modeled as three major show scenes: A bat cave filled with glowing eyes, colorful Rainbow Falls, and a beautiful grotto of color changing crystals. Major work has been completed on the central Rainbow Falls scene and that's the topic of today's post and video log.

Most scenery and effects work is now complete on the upper section of Rainbow Falls, a major scene within Rainbow Caverns, and I'm excited to share the results today in a new post and video log. Tried and true "illusioneering" and stagecraft was used to bring this scene to life with a major element being the "Pepper's Ghost" rainbow effect in front of the falls. Check out this month's video log for a rundown on how the scene was created, and follow along with the photo's below for a more in-depth explanation.

Thunder Mesa Video Log: August 2015

Some representation of Rainbow Caverns has been part of the plan for Thunder Mesa from the very beginning. In fact, it goes back even further, starting with early plans to model Nature's Wonderland, and then on to my HO and On30 Big Thunder & Western layouts. At long last I'm getting around to the real magic at the heart of this model railroad and having a wonderful time playing with miniature versions of some of those classic Disney effects. The Rainbow Falls scene is achieved with a combination of ultra-violet light effects and the classic Pepper's Ghost illusion.

A Pepper's Ghost Rainbow

The waterfall is made from clear acrylic, painted on the back with transparent blue UV reactive paint. The "floating" rainbow is a Pepper's Ghost illusion - basically, a view-point controlled glass reflection.

The Pepper's Ghost illusion is used to make semi-translucent objects appear to float in mid-air. In reality, it's the exact same effect you see when you look at your own reflection in a window. Here, however, the viewing angle is tightly controlled so that only the illuminated object, in this case a photo of a rainbow, can be seen in the reflection. If you've ever experienced the Haunted Mansion at a Disney park then you have seen expert use of this classic illusion. 

Here, a simple black box has been created from cardstock with a blurry rainbow printed against black glued inside. An improvement on this design would be to curve the image around the inside of the box so that no edges will be reflected. My second version (not pictured) does just that.

To illuminate the rainbow, a single white 3mm LED was installed in this faux rock fixture.

The next step in creating the illusion is to position a piece of glass at an angle to reflect the picture or object but not the viewer. Note the the glass should be the full height of the scene. In this case, that's five inches.


All of the rockwork inside the caverns is made from pink polystyrene foam. Some are like set pieces, and are removable for maintenance. Layers of these set pieces are positioned to hide lighting rigs, and to complete the illusion of depth in the caverns when viewed from the proper angles. This is Stair Case Falls under UV light.

Here a piece of polystyrene foam is being shaped with a cone sanding bit in a Dremel tool. This goes fast but you have to be careful not to sand away too much!

Each piece is then painted flat black. Once that dries, varies purples and blues are dry-brushed on for a mottled appearance. Keeping the rocks a dark blueish gray helps to make the UV painted objects pop and makes the caverns seem darker, larger, and more mysterious than they are.

The Waterfall

The waterfall was created in the same basic way as the waterfalls for Big Thunder Creek, by sculpting 1mm thick clear acrylic sheet with a hot soldering iron.

The acrylic waterfall was then painted on the back with blue transparent UV paint before being cemented in place on its own set piece with clear silicone caulk.

A single 5mm UV LED is hidden behind the falls for illumination.

UV Lighting

Several of these 5mm Ultra Violet LEDs were positioned strategically in the scene for added illumination. Outside the waterfall, the creek itself is nothing but acrylic UV paint and gloss medium. Here you cam also see the 12v wiring buss that runs below the caverns from a DC transformer. The red wire is positive and the black is negative - important to know when working with LEDs.

I needed a simple way to mount LEDs to the roof of the scene and still have them be flexible enough to aim the lights. Cheep plastic bendy straws came to the rescue. Painted flat black and attached to the ceiling with a dab of hot glue, they make for quite serviceable miniature lighting rigs. A scrim of rockwork hides rigs like this from view.

What's Next?

Down below Rainbow Falls where the track crosses the creek on a stone bridge, there will be a series of deep pools, each slowly changing color as the magical waters drip down from above. Beyond the falls will be a Crystal Grotto, dancing with light. And let's not forget the Bat Cave with its hundreds of shining eyes. Yes, there's much more to come in Rainbow Caverns! But that will have to do it for this time. Thanks for checking in, Amigos. Adios for now!
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