Category: benchwork

An Update on Calico and This Week’s Video Log

Studio Update - Aug 19, 2017

Progress in Calico Town

It's been a busy week at Thunder Mesa Studio with the new Calico town section well underway. After taking precise measurements at the studio, plans were drawn up for the new 22x56" module and for the future 8' long staging yard to be built behind the backdrop and above my workbench. Click on this week's video log above to see some of the work being done on Calico town.

I built the module in my garage workshop, using dimensional kiln dried stock with a 1/2" thick plywood deck. It's my usual "box and stilts" method of construction, with 1x3 risers supporting the plywood sub-roadbed above a square and sturdy box built of 1x4's. It's strong and relatively lightweight; the same formula that has served me well on multiple layouts over the years, and remains the favored method of benchwork construction on the TMMC.

Installation up at the studio was relatively quick and easy, with everything fitting and lining up with the existing layout just the way it was supposed to. What can I say? I get lucky sometimes. The module is supported by a base built from 1x4's that sits atop some sturdy metal shop shelves. I built a little wiggle room into the base allowing the module to be adjusted to sit level and flush with the deck of the neighboring Canyon Section. The most challenging aspect was building a short piece of new roadbed on the existing layout to connect with the new module. Like most of the layout, track height in this new module will be about 52" above the floor.

When viewed from across the aisle, I want an unbroken vista of canyon scenery so I took particular care in planning the height and placement of the fascia. After testing sight lines, the fascia was cut from 1/8" thick Masonite and glued in place with a pro-grade construction adhesive.

With the module firmly in place, I turned my attention to cutting a "mouse hole" through the Masonite backdrop. This hole will allow trains to enter the layout from a new staging yard to be built "backstage" above my workbench. I used a spade bit in my drill, a small electric saw, utility knife and other hand tool to cut the hole, making sure that there was plenty of clearance allowed for trains to pass without getting hung up. A tunnel portal and some rocky scenery will be built to hide the opening on the layout side, while a simple, black-painted box will block the light and views from backstage on the staging yard side.

The final project I had time for this week was gluing down some HO scale Midwest cork roadbed for the tracks to ride on. Yellow carpenter's glue and a large helping of thumbtacks were used to get this done. Once the glue dried, a sanding block was used to make everything nice and smooth for track laying.

My plan for the town of Calico is for something like a cross between Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town, and the real, restored ghost town of Calico that's out near Barstow, CA. There will be some structures inspired by both locations, but unlike Knott's, my Calico town will be built up the side of a hill to add some visual interest to the scene. For now, I've mocked up the town with a few paper model structures to get a feel for how things will come together. The scenery here will evoke a strong Mojave Desert vibe, distinguishing it from the red sandstone, Colorado Plateau look on the Thunder Mesa side of the layout. I'll probably also tweak the backdrop painting here a bit to look more like the rugged scenery around the real town of Calico.

Next up will be extending the DCC electrical bus to the new layout sections and then laying some track. I'll probably get the track laid through Calico and make a good start on the scenery before diving into the staging yard - mostly because I haven't quite figured out how its going to be supported yet. Then there are all of the other ongoing projects like the Thunder Mesa Riverfront, the big canyon section, Calico Mountain On18 mini-layout, Balancing Rock Canyon, Hanging Rock, and the still unfinished portions of Rainbow Caverns. All in all, enough to keep me busy for quite awhile!

Don't forget to save the date for Thunder Mesa's next Open Studio & Train Day, coming up on Labor Day weekend, Saturday, September 2 from 2pm to 6pm. That's going to wrap it up for this week, amigos. Adios for now!

Big Changes for Calico and a Little Riverfront Progress

TMMC Update - July 29, 2017

It's been a busy week life-wise since the last update so I haven't had too much time to work on the railroad. We took a family trip out to California to spend some time with friends old and new, and to revisit a few old haunts of mine, including Knott's Berry Farm and Calico Ghost Town out near Barstow. It was a fun trip that left me energized and inspired to get things done on the TMMC. Back at the studio, I took a long hard look at my plans for the Calico section and ultimately decided to change course a bit and revive earlier plans for a portable mini-layout based on Knott's Calico Mine Ride.

Plans for a portable On18 layout that docks with the larger TMMC have been on-again, off-again for the past couple years. I've always liked the idea, but couldn't quite figure out how to make it work in the space I had. Looking at things again with a fresh perspective, I realized I could move the town of Calico around the corner into the unused space where I'd been planning to expand the layout since moving it to the studio. This would then free up some room to extend the On18 line down from Big Thunder Camp and have it connect via a long trestle to a portable section depicting the top half of Calico Mountain.

The new mini-layout is smaller than what I had previously planned, just about 24x36", with a tight minimum radius of 9". For the uninitiated, On18 is 1:48 O scale trains running on 9mm gauge track - the same gauge as N scale. Tight curves are the norm, and I just love the chunky, top-heavy look is gives to the equipment. Perfect for a caricature of mining operations like Calico. The track plan is a simple loop with a switch or two to connect to the rest of Thunder Mesa's On18 track.

I started by cutting a piece of 1" thick extruded polystyrene foam, or EPF, to 24x36" and then drawing the basic track plan right on top. Then I placed the foam on top of the existing base I'd built for Calico Mountain and traced the contours before cutting the shape out with a hotwire tool. This gave me the beginnings of a portable module that could fit in the corner and form the top half of Calico Mountain. The next step was tracing the shape onto some 1/4" MDF board and cutting it out to match with a jigsaw. This baseboard was then braced with a simple box made of 1x2" stock to keep everything flat and level. Then the foam was lined-up and glued to the top to form the lightweight, portable benchwork.

The existing EPF base for Calico Mountain was notched and modified to accept the new module but additional bracing underneath will probably be required. The cavernous space created below will eventually be home to a detailed, underground mining scene based on the famous "Glory Hole" scene on Knott's Calico Mine Ride. In the former location of Calico Town, the track has been simplified and the short passing siding removed. This area will now be called Mojave Flats and a trestle from the On18 line will feed a large ore transfer bin here before connecting to the existing On18 track behind Hanging Rock. What was once East Calico will become the new home for Balancing Rock Canyon, a feature from Disneyland's old Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland that I have long wanted to model.

As for the town of Calico itself, it will still mostly consist of structures from Knott's Ghost Town. I still need to finalize plans for the new section of benchwork to be built to the left of Calico Mountain, but I hope to have enough space for a better representation of the town, along with a new passing siding, and possibly a reverse loop that ducks behind the backdrop to connect with a planned staging area above my modeling bench.

Meanwhile, Back at the River...

Work also continues on the roll-away Thunder Mesa Riverfront section where I'm still roughing in the riverbanks and cliff sides with EPF. My 50' paddlewheel steamer kit is on it's way from Kitwood Hill Models and I'm really looking forward to finishing the scenery on this module. 

Hopefully I'll be able to make more time for work on the layout in the coming weeks. In the meantime, don't forget that the next Open Studio & Train Day is Saturday, August 5th. Come on over and say "howdy" if you're in Jerome and see what's new on the railroad for yourself. 

That's going to do it for this update. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Work Begins on the Thunder Mesa Riverfront

TMMC Update - July 15, 2017

Many people today don't realize that the Colorado River along the Arizona-California border was once navigated by steamboats. Entering from the river's delta on the Gulf of California in Mexico, shallow draft paddle wheel steamers once plied the river as far north as the confluence with the Virgin River near the Nevada-Utah line. From 1852 until 1909, river towns like Fort Yuma, Ehrenberg, and Colorado City benefited from this economical form of transport between the Pacific and the rough-and-tumble mining camps of the Arizona and Utah territories.

In the world of Thunder Mesa, river transport is mainly handled by the small and sturdy steamers of the Western River Expedition Company. Tying up at Fowler's Landing, the weekly boat traffic still provides an important trade link to California, the Pacific, and beyond.

I had long dreamed of adding a river scene to the TMMC but was always at a loss as to where to put it. In my imagination, the boomtown had sprung up near the banks of some wild desert river carving its way through the canyons, but actually modeling such a scene would seam to require far more scale real estate than would be practical. The solution came to me one day recently when I was casting about for a creative way to keep casual visitors from wandering up the aisles and possibly damaging delicate details. I could, I realized, build a river scene right in the aisle in front of Thunder Mesa town, effectively blocking it for casual guests while at the same time adding a great deal of entertainment and visual depth. The trick would be to build it on wheels so that it could be rolled out of the way when actually operating the railroad.

This first step in making this plan a reality was to finish up the fascia in front of Thunder Mesa town and at the end of the aisle on the turntable/engine house section. I wanted this area to look good and finished with or without the River Unit rolled into place. All of the "Big Red Buttons" that guests can push to activate sounds or other effects were moved to the front edge of the layout and their wiring rerouted. Then it was a simple matter of cutting and fitting some flexible strips of 1/8" thick Masonite for the fascia, and then clamping and glueing them into place with Loctite Powergrab adhesive. A strip of carved extruded polystyrene foam rockwork was then glued to the top of the fascia to help ease the transition into the new river section. I carve the EPF with a hot-wire cutter, followed by a drum sanding bit in a Dremel rotary tool. For a video on how I carve EPF rockwork, click here.

 

Building the River Unit

Construction was fairly straightforward, using the same materials and techniques that have been successful elsewhere on the Thunder Mesa layout. The River Unit is basically a rolling table, with a box-girder style top attached to a separate L-girder and trestle leg assembly. The whole thing is very lightweight.

Before starting construction, I took very precise measurements to ensure that the River Unit would fit perfectly when docked in the aisle. I created a template from cardstock to match the inner curve of the layout fascia and then used that as a guide when cutting out the 1/8" thick Masonite top. The top is supported by a box-girder assembly of 1x3" stock, held together with Gorilla Glue and drywall screws. The base was built from 1x3" and 1x2" stock with 2x2" pine for the legs. L-girders made from 1x2's and 1x3's make up the top and bottom rails of the base, and the whole thong rolls on 3" castors. Swiveling casters were installed on one end only so that the unit could be easily steered into place like a shopping cart. The height of the Masonite top is 47" from the floor, placing it about 4" below track level in Thunder Mesa town (16' in O scale). This will be the base for the river. The entire unit measures 65x29.5" - purposefully 1/2" narrower than the aisle to give it some wiggle room when being rolled in or out.

After building the modules in my garage at home, I loaded them into the bed of my pick-up and drove them up to Jerome for installation. To my great relief, everything fit together perfectly as designed, proving once again that I can use a tape measure correctly on occasion. The assembled unit can be easily rolled in or out of the aisle. When in place, a simple C-clamp secures it firmly to the layout benchwork.

With the benchwork completed, I was ready to start roughing in the scenery. Once again I'm using pink extruded polystyrene foam board or EPF. I buy it in 4x8' x 1" sheets at my local home center. It's easy to cut and carve with a hotwire tool or a hobby knife, and I use various sanding bits in a Dremel rotary tool to carve rocky textures into the edges. It makes a huge mess, of course, but that's what shop-vacs are for.

 

Next Week

In the coming days, I hope to finish roughing in the river bank scenery with foam and might even make a start on the next steps of blending things together with Sculptamold and sanded grout. After that will come the scenic painting with acrylics, and real dirt and sand for the ground cover. Further on, I've got some fun structures to build for the River Unit, including one of the beautiful 50' paddlewheel steamers from Kitwood Hill Models. Stay tuned for that!

I'll also be getting back to the Marc F. Davis/Pack Mules foreground scene in the near future too since it segue-ways into the river scene. Happy modeling, friends, Thanks for checking in. Adios for now!