A Scene 7 Years in the Making
I first began work on Geyser Gulch back in early 2013 and wrote a little about it on the old Thunder Mesa blog. In this three part series, I'm revisiting and elaborating on some of those old posts, and describing the planning and building of the Gulch right up to the present day. Click here to read Part 1. Click here for part 2.
Part 3: Finishing the Scene
With the trestle complete, it was time to finish the scene with ground cover, desert plants, details, and, of course, the modeled water of the hot springs and geysers. The first step was to blend the bridge abutments into the existing scenery with Sculptamold, and then paint that new scenery to match. I use flat latex and acrylic paints for my scenery painting and have a good supply of the most used colors pre-mixed and on hand.
I've described and done videos about my scenery painting techniques several times before so I won't rehash it too deeply here. Basically, I paint the new area with my scenic base coat, a special mixture of Raw Sienna flat latex house paint. Once that has dried completely, I go back and darken the textures with a thin black acrylic wash from a spray bottle or soft bush. This seeps into the cracks and crevices, darkening the shadows and giving them added depth. I allow that to dry, and then do the final scenic painting with earth toned artists' acrylics right out of the tube. I get the cheap student grade stuff since I use a lot of it. The colors used on the Gulch were raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber (for deep shadows), yellow ochre, and unbleached titanium. Using a flat 1" brush or filbert, the colors are semi-dry-brushed onto the top surfaces of the rocks, working from darker to lighter tones. Colors can be blended together right on the scenery. The final step is to go back with some unbleached titanium and dry-brush on a few highlights to really make the scene pop.
Once I was happy with the scenery painting, I ballasted the approach tracks to the trestle, and started adding ground cover in the form of real rocks and dirt collected in Sedona, Arizona and Moab, Utah. This was all wetted down with a spray bottle filled with "wet water" (that's water with a coupe drops of liquid detergent to break the surface tension), and then everything was cemented in place with diluted matte medium.
Larger rocks, bushes, weeds and cacti are being added in this view. They were all cemented in place with Aleene’s Tacky Glue. Note the big rocks that have tumbled down into the water.
Prickly pear and other cacti are castings from Pegasus Models. Other plants and weeds came from Scenic Express and Woodland Scenics.
Modeling Water in the Hot Springs
Modeling water believably is one of the biggest scenic challenges in this hobby. Perhaps one reason is that water can look so differently under varying conditions and environments. When I modeled Big Thunder Creek, for example, I wanted the look of a fast moving, high desert stream, rushing down from the high country to bring water and life to the canyons below. Frothy cascades and waterfalls give way to deep, green tinted pools, teaming with riparian plants and animals. I also wanted that green tinted water to evoke similar waterways at Disneyland. But for Geyser Gulch, I was after a very different kind of water: the travertine rimmed turquoise pools fed by hot springs and geysers.
Modeling the water for Geyser Gulch actually began with the sculpted terraces and blue-green colors applied when the scene was first begun 7 years ago. Following photos of places like Havasupai and Mammoth Hot Springs, I chose colors and textures that are not typically seen on model railroads, but nevertheless do exist in many places in the natural world. The water in these places is actually crystal clear, like the waters in a swimming pool, nearly devoid of nutrients, but filled with tiny particulates of white travertine. The amazing colors come from those sediments reflecting the sky in the clear waters.
Big Thunder Creek evokes the high desert riparian environments found in canyon country. A rare oasis of green in the red rock desert.
As the waters evaporate, that travertine also forms a white crust on everything it comes into contact with. Over time, that's what builds those sculpted terraces. In the shorter term, it crusts the shoreline and anything close to the water. I simulated this mineral build-up on the lower parts of the trestle by dry-brushing unbleached titanium acrylics onto the stone footings, and dusting the lower bridge timbers with white chalks.
With the scene finally set, and everything painted, it was time for the final steps to make that painted on water look wet. For this, I turned to a couple of products that should be familiar to most modelers: Envirotex Lite clear epoxy resin, and Mod Podge acrylic gloss medium. Envirotex to give the water an appearance of depth, and Mod Podge to enliven the surface and make the water look like it was moving.
Follow the photos below for the step-by-step process.
It’s important to prepare the surface well before pouring liquid epoxy. Envirotex is self-leveling and will find any holes in the surface to flow through. A temporary dam of blue painters tape was used to keep the resin from flowing out of the hot springs and onto the floor.
After the initial pour, and as the resin began to set-up, I used a bamboo skewer to try and add some ripples to the surface. You can use a small propane torch to eliminate air bubbles at this stage also, but since I wanted the look of bubbling springs I didn’t bother with that step.
The Envirotex sets crystal clear and ultra glossy. It also wants to set completely flat and level so most of the ripples that I worked into the surface completely disappeared as the resin cured overnight. You can tint Envirotex with a drop or two of acrylic colors if you want, but since I wanted clear water, I poured the resin as is.
Dead, flat water looks pretty unconvincing in my view and will also reflect anything above the layout such as track lighting to pull you right out of the scene. The solution is to add some texture to the surface of the water and I used good old Mod Podge for this. This stuff is one of my favorite scenic materials. It’s cheap, widely available, and easy to use. The matte version even makes an excellent scenic glue.
Once the Envirotex had cured completely, I stippled Mod Podge onto the surface with a soft brush. I also brushed some onto the geyser heads and other surfaces that might be shiny from splashing water. Mod Podge is a heavy bodied acrylic medium that dries to a clear high gloss while still holding its shape.
The final look of Geyser Gulch after drying overnight. The Envirotex gives the water depth, while the Mod Podge enlivens the surface with ripples and movement.
Making Old Unfaithful Erupt
An erupting Geyser or two is something I've wanted on a model train layout since long before I even began thinking about Thunder Mesa. Inspired by "Old Unfaithful" from Disneyland's early Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland attraction, I wanted an effect that was reliable, relatively easy to maintain, and that could be triggered by push-button or by a passing train. I knew I wanted an effect with real steam or vapor coming out of the geyser head, but one that wouldn't damage the scenery or lead to maintenance issues over time. I had an inkling that some sort of theatrical smoke machine might work, but they were all too big and messy for my needs. To be honest, how to do the effect stumped me for quite a long time and I kind of had to wait for technology to catch up before I could do it right.
A vape pipe converted to mini smoke machine. The plastic vial contains vape “base” – A flavorless, nicotine free concoction of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin that is the “smoke fluid” for the machine.
As vaping gained in popularity, I began to wonder if one could modify an inexpensive vape pipe into a small smoke machine that could be used on a layout. As it turns out, you can, and I was far from the first person to think about converting one of these things to more creative and artistic uses. I wondered if you could attach a small electric fan to one end and blow the vapor out the other. After doing a little research online, I found that not only could you do that, but that the cosplay community had beaten me to the idea by several years. A few people were already making them and selling them on Etsy and other places, so, rather than cobbling something together myself, I saved a little time by purchasing one of the units and having it shipped to the studio.
I chose a model that could be activated by push-button and powered by a rechargeable 2 amp power bank via USB (not included). Then it was a fairly simple matter of hooking the unit up to the existing plumbing I had built into the geysers. Old Unfaithful was built up from carved Balsa Foam over a short length of 1/4" copper tubing that extends below the layout. Rubber tubing connects the business end of the pipe to the copper and a big red button on the layout fascia was wired up to activate the unit. The rechargeable power bank is hidden beneath the layout where it is secured to the benchwork with velcro tape. Load the unit with fluid, plug in the USB, press the button, and voila! The geyser erupts!
In this overhead view, it’s easy to see the copper tubbing inside the caldera of Old Unfaithful Geyser.
Check out my latest YouTube "How To" for a complete breakdown and demonstration of the system and how it works.
The mini smoke machine I used was made by MONcosplay Prop Shop, available on Etsy.
Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of other model railroading uses for a mini smoke unit like this: a forest fire scene. a slash burner at a sawmill, a burning building, a factory or smelter smokestack... You get the idea. Imagination is the only limit!
I hope everyone enjoyed this series on building Geyser Gulch and found it informative. Looking back on the 7 years it took me to complete the scene, I'm glad I didn't rush it. It certainly didn't need to take 7 years, but it does take time to build the required skills and knowledge, and to better refine an idea for the best presentation. I'll be happy to answer any questions in the comments below, or over on Thunder Mesa's Facebook page if you follow my exploits there. Remember, you can also visit Thunder Mesa Studio and see the layout in person on the first Saturday of every month. Check the Visit tab for details.
I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to follow along with my projects. Enthusiasm is contagious. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!