Category: model railroading

Thunder Mesa No. 8 ~ The R. H. Gurr

The Bob

Thunder Mesa's newest locomotive is a trusty and reliable 14-ton Stearns-Heisler, circa 1895. The repainted and detailed Bachmann model is named in honor of Disney Imagineering legend, Bob Gurr. It has always been Thunder Mesa's practice to name its locomotives in honor of Disney artists and Imagineers, and If you're not familiar with Bob Gurr, you should be. He designed just about everything with wheals in the early days of Disneyland, including the Monorail, Autopia cars, and Main Street vehicles. On the Thunder Mesa layout, the R. H. Gurr wears the number 8, and has the distinction of being the first geared locomotive used on the line. Lacking a third truck, #8 has something of a short, squished appearance, and that has earned it the nickname of "The Bob" with the Thunder Mesa crews.

Heisler History

Thunder Mesa's R.H. Gurr locomotive is based upon a small, 14-ton version of Charles L. Heisler's 1892 patented design. Heisler's design featured two cylinders canted inward at a 45º angle, with power transferred via a center mounted longitudinal drive shaft connecting enclosed gearboxes between the truck frames. Outside connecting rods then distributed power between the wheels. This was a variant similar to the Climax design where the cylinders are canted at an angle but mounted inline with the locomotive boiler.

The Stearns Manufacturing Company of Erie, Pennsylvania built Heislers from 1894 to 1907, when they reorganized as the Heisler Locomotive works and continued producing the design until 1941. As befitting a locomotive name in honor of Bob Gurr, Stearns claimed that the Heisler was the fastest of the geared locomotive designs, but with the same low-speed hauling ability as a Shay or Climax.

Though a later model, Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad's Stearns-Heisler #2, the Tuolumne, inspired some of the color and design choices on TMMC's #8. The Tuolumne originally belonged to the fabled West Side Lumber Company where it wore the number 3.


The Bachmann Stearns-Heisler

Bachmann's On30 version of the 14-ton Stearns-Heisler is an accurately detailed and fine running model without any of the split gear issues that plagued their Climax and Shay offerings. Mine has become the reliable workhorse of the TMMC and you can see it earning its keep at most Open Studio days. I look forward to adding another to the roster at some point in the future.

For this model, I replaced the original cab with a Banta Modelworks cab kit and stained the wood cherry red. Then I stripped the factory paint and decals off of the tender and repainted it with a gloss Hunter Green, painting the cab window trim to match. I replaced the headlight with a backdated box-style headlight salvaged from an old Bachmann Porter, then built up a new load for the tender from real Utah Juniper twigs, split and stacked as cordwood. The pilots and running boards were all repainted to add realism and dull the shine. Custom water-slide gold decals where printed for me by Stan Cedarleaf, and the crew is a pair of repainted Arttista figures. The tools and details are white metal castings from Wiseman Model Services.

A Trip Through Thunder Mesa Country with the R. H. Gurr

Sit back, relax, and enjoy this video tour of the layout and some insight into the building of the R.H. Gurr.


I hope Bob will forgive me for naming a slow, geared locomotive after him. He would probably prefer something sleek, fast, and candy-apple red!

Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

The Saga of Geyser Gulch – Part 3

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.

Bridge footings and abutments blended into the existing scenery with Sculptamold.

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.

Fire barrels were added to the trestle refuges. These started as resin castings from Wiseman Model Services and I added the lid handles, fashioned from 1/32″ birch plywood.

Prickly pear and other cacti are castings from Pegasus Models. Other plants and weeds came from Scenic Express and Woodland Scenics.

Old Unfaithful has its own National Park style sign to alert guests to this scenic wonder. The sign artwork was created in Photoshop, combining text with realistic photo textures of real wood. 

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.

The turquoise waters of Geyser Gulch. In nature, the vivid colors come from white travertine sediments in the clear water that reflect the sky above. In the modeled world, they need to be recreated with paint.

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.

Envirotex Lite clear 2-part epoxy resin. About 1 oz was enough to cover all of the water areas in Geyser Gulch about 1/16″ deep. You don’t really need more than that. I followed the directions and mixed the 2 parts 1:1, stirring thoroughly and pouring immediately after mixing.

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.

Because it’s real vapor, every “eruption” is a little different. Here, a small cloud of vapor rises from the 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!

Wrapping Up

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!

The Saga of Geyser Gulch – Part 2

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.

This temporary trestle bent was built to see if a bridge using lighter 8″ x 8″ posts would be convincing in the scene. It worked so well at supporting the track that the scene didn’t progress much beyond this point for nearly seven years!

Phantom Ranch Canteen, Grand Canyon National Park. Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.

Part 2: Geyser Gulch Trestle

It's always exciting when trains cross over water and as Geyser Gulch is such a focal point on the layout it required a very special bridge. Coming up with a pleasing design was a bit of a challenge since I wanted a wooden bridge, but at the same time didn't want it to obscure or distract from the scenery in the Gulch. Then there were the purely logistical problems of engineering a trestle for a tight 15" radius curve while trying to make something that might be believable in the real world. I wanted something light and airy looking, but also sturdy.

My first design decision was to use scale 8" x 8" timbers for the posts and sills instead of the more prototypical 12" x 12"s. This reduces the "visual mass" of the bridge right away and gives a nice spindly look to the bents. The next decision was to reduce the angle of the outside posts, adding to the tall, narrow look. Next I opted for a rather unusual butterfly truss arrangement between the bents instead of the usual straight stringers which allowed for a wider spacing of the bents than would otherwise be possible on such a tight curve. This arrangement is modeled after a bridge in Franklin New Hampshire and makes for a beautiful and graceful looking trestle in my opinion.

Placing wooden timbers directly into water is never a good option and most railroads avoided it whenever possible. It might be cheeper in the short run to use a pile driver and smash the posts into the stream bed, but it's a temporary solution at best. Corrosive minerals, flash floods, and wood rot would greatly shorten the life span of such a bridge. We try to build things to last on the TMMC, so the decision was made to use footing made of local stone to support the wooden bents above the water.

Using stone rather than concrete footings was a purely aesthetic decision. I have always been a great admirer of National Park architecture, particularly the native wood and stone buildings of Mary Elizabeth Colter at Grand Canyon and other Southwestern parks. Since Nature's Wonderland shares so much in common with our National Parks, it was obvious that what I wanted was a bridge that looked like it might have been designed by Mary Colter.

With that in mind, I tried to design a bridge that would compliment and reflect its surrounding, rather than detract from them, using local Ponderosa Pine timbers from the top of Thunder Mesa and local sandstone and limestone for the footings and abutments.

Mixing light and airy construction with sturdy stone piers, this butterfly truss design requires only four bents to cross the water at Geyser Gulch. During construction, I added about a scale foot of width to the bents and widened the angles slightly, but the overall look and feel is roughly the same.

Constructing the Bridge

Planning a bridge is one thing, building it in place is another story entirely. Since I had no desire to re-lay the 15" radius curve through existing scenery on either side of the Gulch, my idea was to create the bridge deck first, then install it beneath the existing rails. Then the bents and trusses could be built and installed beneath the deck. This is a little unorthodox, but I was able to pull it off with a little help from my friends.

On real curved trestles, only the rails are actually curved, while the stringers are made up of short straight sections bolted together. Since the curve was so sharp here on Geyser Gulch, I decided to cheat a little and create a trestle that really was curved. I contacted my friend and Crescent Creek Models business partner, Jake Johnson, to find out if it would be possible to laser cut some 1/4" MDF into the shape I had in mind. We put our heads together and came up with a curved, one piece, laser cut stringer that would run the entire length of the bridge and greatly simplify construction.

I designed the one piece curved stringer with a vector drawing program (Adobe Illustrator) to perfectly match the 15″ radius of the existing curve. This was sent off to my friend Jake Johnson who had the part laser cut for me out of 1/4″ thick MDF. Once stained and detailed, the piece does a great job of simulating 12″ thick bridge stringers.

The MDF stringer and Kappler bridge ties were both stained with Minwax Dark Walnut touch-up markers. This color does a nice job of simulating creosoted timbers. I created a full size template in Adobe Illustrator for the proper placement and alignment of the ties.

Double stick tape was applied to the template to hold the ties in place. Note the longer 8×8 ties for the two refuge platforms.

Yellow carpenter’s glue was applied to the ties and then the one piece bridge stringer was clamped in place on top. This was allowed to dry overnight.

Scale 6×6 guard timbers were cut to length, stained, and then cemented in place atop the bridge ties. Grandt Line nut-bolt-washer castings were glued into predrilled holes in the tops of the guard timbers.

The trestle refuges were constructed of scale 4×4 and 2×4 stock over a quickly drawn template. The platforms are floored with scale 1×12 boards.

Before the new bridge deck could be installed, the old plastic ties had to be cut away from the Peco flextrack. Short pieces of rail were soldered to the top of the track at intervals to help keep everything in gauge.

With the plastic ties removed, the rails were painted with a Rail Brown Floquil paint marker. It’s much easier to color the rails now – before the new bridge deck is in place!

At this point I was ready to install the new bridge deck, but there was a small problem. I wanted to use Micro Engineering small spikes for a prototypical look on the bridge but I was completely out of them. To make matters worse, they were also out of stock at all of my usual suppliers. Once again, a friend came to the rescue. Tom Gazsi said he had some small spikes that he'd been holding onto since the early 70's and offered to put them in the mail for me right away. They arrived in a couple days and the TMMC bridge crews were back in business. Many thanks Tom!

Before spiking, contact cement was applied to the bottom of the rails and allowed to dry. Then the deck was held snugly in place with foam blocks while the glue was reactivated with a hot soldering iron. This makes for a tidy job.

Pilot holes were drilled with a #75 bit in a pin vice and the spikes were pushed into place with a Xuron rail spiking tool. The small wooden block also helps keep the rails in gauge during spiking.

Each tie on the trestle gets 4 spikes. It’s time consuming, but the final look is well worth the effort.

The bridge abutments and footings were carved from Balsa Foam and painted with artists’ acrylics. Grout between the rocks is spackling compound pressed into the nooks and crannies.

I created a jig to make construction of the bents easier. A scale drawing was laminated to foamcore then covered with clear packaging tape. The foamcore allows you to hold things in place with pins while the glue dries, and the tape ensures parts wont get glued to the template.

One of the completed bents. Careful measurements were required to maintain a correct height for the carved Balsa Foam footings. Grandt Line NBW’s were painted dark brown and applied in logical places.

Each bent was carefully cemented in its proper location beneath the trestle deck. Then the butterfly truss braces were custom cut and fitted for each bent. An abbreviated version of the jig above was used to build the short bent near the left end of the trestle.

With all of the bents and truss supports in place, the final footings and abutments could be added and blended into the existing scenery with Sculptamold.

With the bridge now complete, the next steps were to blend it into the existing scenery and finish the Gulch itself. I'll cover all of that and more in part 3 of this series. We'll look at ground cover, plants, and details; and do some final water modeling with clear epoxy resin to make those travertine pools come alive. I'll also show how I created the effect of an erupting geyser in model form. Stay tuned, amigos! Adios for now.

Click here to read Part 3.

The Saga of Geyser Gulch – Part 1

A Scene 7 Years in the Making

Way back in early 2013, I first described the area called Geyser Gulch on the original Thunder Mesa blog:

"Just after leaving Thunder Mesa, trains pass beneath majestic McKennon Arch, gateway to the Living Desert, and into an active geothermal area known locally as Geyser Gulch. The Gulch is spanned by a rickety old wooden trestle and is home to bubbling pools, multi-hued hot springs and more than a couple erupting geysers - including "Old Unfaithful," most famous of them all."

In this three part series, I'll revisit some of those old posts, and describe the planning and building of the Gulch right up to the present day. Along the way, I'll detail the planning process and techniques used to bring this scene to life.

Geyser Gulch was always planned as a signature scene on the Thunder Mesa layout, with the greatest vertical separation on the railroad; 33 inches or 132 scale feet from the bottom of the Gulch to the top of Baxter's Butte. While it has taken seven years for me to complete the scene, It didn't really need to. That's just the way it worked out, with other projects and interests cropping up and demanding attention along the way.

Follow along to see how it all came together!

Part 1: Building the Gulch

Inspiration for Geyser Gulch and its deep turquoise travertine pools came from several sources, not the least of which are similar scenes at Disney parks. The original Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland at Disneyland had an area with erupting geysers and bubbling mud pots, including "Old Unfaithful Geyser" that would erupt and mist riders as the mine trains passed. Then there are the hot springs and erupting geysers on the Big Thunder attractions at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. Grizzly River Run at Disney California Adventure has an active geyser area that the rafts pass through, and there are similar scenes along the railroad at Disneyland Paris, and at Grizzly Gulch in Hong Kong Disneyland.

Equally important is where the real world inspiration for these Imagineered scenes came from; places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks. My Geyser Gulch scene is based mostly on Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone, and the colors of Havasupai at Grand Canyon.

Old Unfaithful erupting on the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland at Disneyland. Circa 1960. 

Hot Springs and erupting Geysers on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World.

Creating a Natural Wonder

Geyser Gulch represents the essence of my modeling philosophy as it pertains to Thunder Mesa: Don't be boring. The truth about real railroads is that vast stretches of them are indeed boring or monotonous. If I wanted to be realistic I would focus on those mundane realities, but a strict adherence to realism has never been my goal. I want to create an immersive, wondrous world, with just enough realism salted in to make it believable. No real railroad would build their line beneath natural arches and over active geothermal areas, but this is the "Nature's Wonderland Route," so we pass from one scenic wonder to the next with all of the boring parts cut out.

The scene occupies an inside corner of the layout with one of the sharpest curves on the entire line. Trains pass through McKennon Arch and transition to the new scene on a 15" radius curve. The scenery drops away below track level as Baxter's Butte soars high above, creating some of the most dramatic vertical separation on the railroad. But in the beginning, it was just plywood and Extruded Polystyrene Foam (EPF).

The basic shape of the Gulch was built up with 1″ pink EPF carved with a hot-wire cutting tool.

The terraced hot springs were built up with disks of foamcore, card-stock and paper, cemented into place with white glue.

1/4″ copper tubing serves as plumbing for the geyser heads. This will connect to a mini smoke machine below the layout. “Old Unfaithful” was carved from Balsa Foam.

The EPF foam layers were smoothed and blended together with Sculptamold. Rock detail was carved into the Sculptamold as it set.

Liquitex acrylic modeling paste was used to shape and detail the edges of the travertine terraces.

Once the Sculptamold and modeling paste was dry, the entire scene was painted with the scenic base color, Raw Sienna. I use acrylic or latex paints for this.

The areas around the hot springs and geysers were darkened with acrylic paint, and the first turquoise tones were added to the travertine pools.

Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Unbleached Titanium acrylics were used to finish the rock colors and create the look of years of mineral staining from the springs.

The travertine pools were painted with mixtures of turquoise acrylic paints, mixed to match the colors I have observed at Havasupai in Grand Canyon and other locations around the Southwest. Colors were blended together in place with a soft brush to give the look of churning and bubbling springs.

At this stage, progress on the Gulch was delayed for several years as work, many other projects, and an eventual move of the entire layout to my new studio in Jerome kept the project simmering on the back burner. Recently, work on the Gulch has resumed, and in part 2 of this series, I'll dive into the planning and construction of Geyser Gulch Trestle. Then, in part 3, we'll finish the Gulch with liquid epoxy resin, ground-cover, plants and details, and finally see Old Unfaithful erupt!

Thanks for coming along for the ride, amigos. Adios for now!

Click here to read part 2.

Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn Kit From Crescent Creek Models

In partnership with the Carolwood Foundation, Crescent Creek Models is thrilled to announce the O scale, premier edition of our Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn model kit. This video gives some history of Walt's Barn and the inspiration for these beautiful kits. The premier edition of 200 O scale kits are available for pre-order now and will ship in early fall 2019. Order yours now while supplies last!

A Water Tower for Thunder Mesa

Starting from Scratch

The one way to get exactly the structure you want on a model railroad is to design it and build it from scratch. The original water tower for Thunder Mesa Town was a built from a modified Banta Modelworks kit, but after I decided that it fit better in the scene over in Hanging Rock, I was left needing a new tank for this location. I've always liked the look of stone-based water towers, so when it came time to replace the tank at Thunder Mesa Town, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I also wanted the railroad's herald to appear painted on the sides of the tank, and these requirements led to the materials and techniques used on the project as described below.



For the stone base, I turned to a versatile material that has been used many times before on the Thunder Mesa layout: Balsa Foam. Balsa Foam is basically the retail hobby version of the "gold foam" or "prop foam"used by Disney Imagineers and Hollywood prop makers. It has an excellent consistency for carving and no grain. I prefer the denser version sold as Balsa Foam II for its ability to hold finer detail. The stones for my pump house were carved using a hard HB pencil lead and a #11 hobby knife. I measured carefully for the doors and windows, and then carved out cavities for them so that they would appear recessed into the the masonry. Behind the window, I hollowed out a larger cavity so that the structure could be lit from within. Balsa Foam creates a lot of fine dust while carving so breathing protection should be worn.


Spray paint makes most foams disintegrate, but Balsa Foam is non-reactive, so the finished carving can be primed with your favorite brand of rattle-can paint. I used Krylon Ultra Flat Camouflage Brown. Once that had dried completely, the stonework was painted with inexpensive craft store acrylics. I chose colors that matched the scenery on my layout since I wanted it to appear that the stones were quarried locally. When satisfied with the painting, joint compound was pushed into the cracks to simulate grout between the stones. The excess was removed with a wet brush and, once dry, a thin, dirty wash of acrylics (basically the paint water) was applied over the entire structure to darken the grout lines. Then some individual stones were picked out with a small brush and random earth-tone colors.


I created lintels above the doors and windows with scale 6x6' strip-wood, a common architectural detail in the Southwest, then built the doors themselves from scribed basswood and wood scraps. The doorknobs are Atlas HO track nails, painted with Model Masters brass. The solitary window is a Grandt Line 6 over 6 masonry window casting cut in half and re-assembled with styrene cement. The roof panels, rafters and trim are all Crescent 300 illustration board. This material is about 1/16" thick and has an excellent surface for painting. I add woodgrain to the illustration board with a fine razor saw before scribing boards with a #11 hobby knife. Then I paint it with watercolors, using about a 50/50 mixture of burnt sienna and cobalt blue to achieve a silvery, weathered wood appearance. The watercolors soak into and darken the score lines and woodgrain doing most of the work for you. Heavily diluted acrylics could also be used for this, but I prefer watercolors. All of the basswood pieces were also stained a similar warm gray to match.


To achieve the look of old, pealing paint, I dabbed all of the trim pieces in likely spots with a latex resist known as Friskit. Rubber cement can also be used for this step but Frisket is specifically formulated for this kind of thing. Once the latex was dry, I airbrushed all of the roof pieces, doors, and windows with a dark, flat green. A half hour or so later, I rubbed the Frisket off with a kneaded rubber eraser to expose the bare wood underneath.

For the window, I simulated the look of old style, rippled glass by carefully painting Woodland Scenics Realistic Water onto the back of the thin acrylic glazing and then drying it quickly with a hair dryer. Since I didn't want the nearly solid interior of my structure to be visible, I also sprayed the back of the glazing with Testor's Dullcote once it was completely dry. Then all of the roof, trim pieces, and doors and windows were assembled onto the structure and cemented in place with Aileen's Tacky Glue.


To create a tank with the look of the Thunder Mesa herald painted on the sides, I turned to the technique of using realistic printed photo textures. I downloaded free hi-res wood textures from and then created my tank wrapper in Adobe Photoshop. I use Photoshop daily in my work as a commercial artist so this was second nature for me, but I understand that it is expensive software and has a steep learning curve. However, there are a few open source programs available like Gimp that can be used instead with very good results.

I made careful measurements as to the thickness of the tank slats, bands, and the relative positions of the heralds as all would appear on the finished model. I also added water stains and weathering in Photoshop by selecting and desaturating certain areas. Then I printed several copies of my tank wrapper on Epson Premium Matte Presentation Paper using the highest quality setting on my inkjet printer.


To build the tank, I laid out two 2.5" diameter circles on illustration board using a compass. Then the circles were cut out with a hobby knife. To insure that the circles were perfectly round and would align properly, I placed one atop the other and then drilled the compass point holes all the way through. Then I could chuck them up together in my Dremel tool and turn them against 300 grit sandpaper until the edges were perfectly matched and even. Cardstock supports were cut to size and glued in place for the tank interior, and then the entire assembly was wrapped with Bristol Board to form a cylinder. Bristol Board is a heavy illustration paper that shapes easily.

Once the tank structure was built, I laminated one of my tank wrapper printouts to a second piece of Bristol using 3m Super 77 spray adhesive, using a good even coat, and rolling with a brayer to insure good adhesion. This was then cut out and carefully glued in place around the tank structure using white glue. Rubber bands were used to hold everything in place until the glue set.


With the tank wrapper cemented in place, I repeated the laminating process with a second printout, and then cut out the individual tank bands to glue over the printed bands on the tank. The white paper edges of each band were carefully painted dark brown before each was cemented into place. This took a little time, but was well worth it for the convincing 3-d look achieved, especially around the TMMC heralds. Then, the bands were finished with white metal tank band fastener castings from Wiseman Model Service - a hobby supplier that I highly recommend.

Turning to the roofs, scale 4x8's were cut to size, stained, and then glued in place to form a support structure for the tank. Then I finished the pump house roof with laser cut printed paper shingles from Bar Mills and these were given a heavy weathering with various shades of colored chalk dust.


I wanted a conical roof for the tank, so a support structure was built from illustration board. The base is two disks, one slightly smaller than the other, and both turned in the Dremel and sanded to be perfectly round before being cemented together. The upright triangular pieces form a hexagon. This structure was then "skinned" with thinner Bristol to form a base for the shingles. The underside of the tank roof was painted a flat dark green to match the rest of the trim on the structure.


The tank roof was then shingled with Bar Mills laser cut paper shingles. This was not as easy as it sounds since their shingle strips are designed for straight roofs, not curves, and the strips had to be cut down to just 2 or 3 shingles each to match the conical shape of the roof. After this step, a finial cap was constructed from a small cone of Bristol Board and the head from a dress pin. This was primed, then painted with Model Masters Copper before being glued in place. The finial was then heavily weathered with blue-green colored chalks to suggest oxidation and tarnish. Then the rest of the roof was similarly weathered with gray and brown chalks.


Before shingling was complete, a small hatch was made for the roof from scribed basswood, wire, and some scraps from the drawer. All of this was stained and weathered to match the rest of the tank.


Thunder Mesa crews need to see how much water is in the tank, so a water depth gauge was created from paper, wood, and black thread and glued into place. Its strategic placement also does the job of hiding the seam where the printed tank wrapper and bands come together.


The spout, weights, and pulleys are Grandt Line white metal castings that were given to me by a friend of the railroad. I cleaned up the castings and then painted them with Krylon Ultra Flat Camouflage Brown paint from a rattle-can. Then I went back with a rag dipped in paint thinner and rubbed some of the paint away in likely areas. Rust and lime deposits were added by painting on colored chalk dust mixed with 70% isopropyl alcohol.


The spout hanger, or yoke, was built from scale stripwood, and the cables are elastic thread that has been stained silver-gray with diluted acrylics. All of this was assembled and glued to the tank before it was cemented to the stone base. Then the roof was carefully aligned and cemented in place with white glue. A final detail was the addition of an inflow pipe to bring water from the creek to fill the tank, a white metal piece left over from the Grandt Line spout assembly.


For a finished look, some matching trim was cut from stripwood, then stained and painted in the same manner as other trim on the pump house before being cemented in place below the tank. A short smokestack was created from a soda straw with a piece of styrene flashing, painted and then glued to the pump house roof as evidence of a steam powered water pump inside the structure.


Finally, a ladder was built for the tank using two sections from a Bar Mills laser cut ladder kit. A bracket built from scrap stripwood connects the ladder to the tank and pump house roof. The warm glow from the pump house window is provided by a 3mm yellow LED, wired to this layout section's 12v DC lighting, sound, and animation bus.

Wrapping Up

I little bit of touch up here and there with a small brush, and a little more weathering and blending with chalks, and the finished model is ready to be worked into the scene. Now it can do its job, filling the saddle tanks and tenders of thirsty steamers on the TMMC.

As always, thanks for checking in and following along. I hope some of you will find the techniques and materials described here useful. I'll be happy to answer any questions in the comments section below. Keep moving forward, amigos. Adios for now!