Thunder Mesa Blog

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!

Open Studio & Train Day – Saturday, Sep 2

Join us this Labor Day Weekend for a fun time at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. See what’s new on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company, an operating 1/4″ scale narrow gauge model railroad featuring spectacular scenery, lights, animation, and sound. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around after 5pm for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk. Free popcorn and Thunder Mesa railway passes for all guests!

Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm.

See the Events Page for complete details.

A Visit to Thunder Mesa Studio

Today's blog is actually a vlog! A Thunder Mesa Studio Video Log to be precise. It's been quite awhile since I've done one of these and I decided to have some fun with it. Hope you enjoy!

Lone Rock Moves to the Thunder Mesa Riverfront

TMMC Update - August 5, 2017

The 12x24" Lone Rock Diorama was built in January of 2015 to demonstrate scenery techniques and to act as a platform for photographing rolling stock models outdoors. It appeared in Joey Ricard's Trackside Scenery video on how to realistically model rocks, and in Verne Niner's cover shot for the April, 2015 issue of Model Railroader Hobbyist Magazine. That's a fairly illustrious history, but since moving the TMMC to its new home in Jerome, the old diorama has been sitting in a corner just gathering dust. After exploring several different scenarios for working it into the larger layout, I finally decided to remove its short stretch of On30 track and add the remainder of the diorama to the new riverfront scene.


The Lone Rock Diorama was never designed to function and the track had no power. It was built mainly to demonstrate rock carving techniques in urethane foam. It was a fun, quick project, and I'm very happy with the way it turned out. But it's time to move on and recycle this chunk of scenery into the larger layout.


With the decision made, disassembly of the diorama was quick and relatively painless. I popped the foam off of the 1x2" base, removed the track and roadbed, pried out the short stone bridge (to be reused at a new location), and then used a hotwire tool to cut away the parts that wouldn't fit the river scene. All in all, I was able to salvage about 90% of it.


From most viewing angles, Lone Rock will now obscure the point where the river meets the backdrop, giving the illusion that it disappears around a bend in the canyon. Once it was glued into position with Loctite Powergrab, I cut and contoured pieces of pink EPF foam to blend it with the rest of the riverbank.


With the butte in place, I turned my attention back to the near bank and finished roughing in the road with foam, cradstock and plaster cloth. I don't use a lot of plaster on the layout, but plaster cloth is perfect for creating the contours of a dirt road like this and blending it with the foam.


Ordinarily, the next step would be to blend the carved foam layers together with Sculptamold. However since I'm expecting guests for today's Open Studio & Train Day, I decided to go ahead and give the riverbed and rocky shoreline a base coat of latex paint. Much of this will be covered in the next step but it gives things a more finished look for now.


The paint colors used were leftover from the backdrop and the final river color will be a bit different. In the meantime, I'm digging the photo opportunities that this new River Unit will present, and the miles and miles of depth it will add to scenes like this one.

Ok Amigos! That's going to do it for this week. Now I've got to head up and sweep the studio to prepare for today's Open Studio & Train Day event! I hope to see some of you there today, but if you can't make it, just remember that I do it just about every month on the first Saturday. 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!

Olson & Furlow’s Place Returns to Hanging Rock

TMMC Update - July 22, 2017

I didn't have much time to work on the new Thunder Mesa riverfront this week, but I did want to catch things up on the construction and migrations of the Olson & Furlow Saloon.

Built as a tribute to two of my favorite modelers, John Olson and Malcolm Furlow, the saloon was featured in my Model Railroad Hobbyist column from January, 2017: 10 Tips for Modeling Structures With Character. While the column delved mostly into the backstory and research behind the structure, I thought I'd take a little time here to show more about how it was actually built.

The scratchbuilt structure follows my own design and is made primarily of illustration board. The base is 1/4" thick MDF carved and painted to look like flagstone, the windows and doors are mostly Grandt Line details, and the main roof is covered in laser-cut paper shingles from Bar Mills. Click through the photos at left to see it come together step-by-step.

I built the structure at the same time that I was working on the scenery around Hanging Rock and the whole thing was designed to tuck up against the canyon wall. The idea being that this place was the last surviving remnant of an old railroad construction camp and had been scrounged together from various parts by its intrepid proprietors. In my 10 Tips article I wrote:

Deep in the canyons, about halfway down the line between San Lorenzo and Thunder Mesa is the whistle stop burg known as Hanging Rock. It's a lonesome place, once a stronghold for the Indians and now a haunt for outlaws. There, on a small rise between the mainline and a weed-grown siding, stands the Olson & Furlow establishment. Part saloon, part store, the old place has a character born from its bawdy history and seasoned by the harsh climate of the desert. The adobe casita that forms most of the ground floor probably dates from the 1850's, but nobody can say for sure. The place was abandoned when Olson and Furlow took it over in 1878 and added the upper wooden story. They were railroad men who came west with the construction gangs to help build the bridges at Horse Thief and Coyote Canyons. That was backbreaking work, and so, as the story goes, they decided to go freelance and open a saloon.

I always liked that backstory, but then, for some reason, I threw it all out the window and relocated the structure to Thunder Mesa town. I must have had a good reason at the time but for the life of me I can't remember it now.

Now, one thing has led to another, and with the plans for the new River Unit well under way, Olson & Furlow's has migrated back to its original location (and backstory) at Hanging Rock. The spot it briefly held down in Thunder Mesa town will now be home to some trackside livestock pens. Appropriate, I guess, since judging by their writings, both men were/are world-class bull shippers.

Moving the structure again also reminded me that it's not really finished. There are still a few interior details to add upstairs, and lighting to add throughout the model. It was originally built with these things in mind so adding them shouldn't be too difficult. And there's much more to add in Hanging Rock too. The plans I've drawn tell me there's a mine tipple there, as well as a small freight dock and a whistle-stop depot made from an old combination car. Then there's all of that slot-canyon scenery waiting to be finished and bridges to build over nearby Horse Thief Canyon.

I'm sure there will be more on all of that in some upcoming posts. For this week, thanks for checking in, friends. Adios for now!

Open Studio & Train Day – Sat, Aug 5

Join us for another day of fun at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. Enjoy the sights and sounds of the Thunder Mesa Mining Co. model railroad and artwork by local artist D.L. Meek. Stick around after 5pm for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk. Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm.

View complete info on the events page.

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!

A New Scene for the Marc F. Davis

TMMC Update - July 8, 2017

Now that the layout has been successfully moved and I'm all settled in to the new studio, it's time to get back to work on the railroad and some other projects. Here's an update on what's been going on over the passed week.

The front edge of the layout by Thunder Mesa town is one of the first things guests see when they visit the layout. The space was originally home to Thunder Mesa Depot, but after that structure was moved during a redesign of the town, the narrow strip of layout in front of the tracks sat torn up and empty for a long time. One idea was to put some stock pens there, but those will now be built across the tracks below Castle Rock and Injun Joe's Cave. This frees up the space for a new scene featuring the Thunder Mesa Pack Mules building and a dummy spur track for displaying the Marc F. Davis locomotive, TMMC #1.

The sad truth about the one-spot is that it has always been a poor runner. It was a scrap-box special, built several years ago atop a DC powered Bachmann HO cable car power truck. Theoretically I could take it apart and add a tiny decoder somewhere to make it work with the rest of Thunder Mesa's digitally controlled equipment, but I just don't see that paying off with a better operating locomotive. The motor itself is poor and the electrical pick-up is spotty at best. So, for the foreseeable future, it will remain a static model. On the plus side, the headlight works great.

Still, I've always liked the funky, homebuilt look of the Marc F. Davis, and have long thought about building a small scene around it that might be a fitting tribute to its namesake.

Something else I've always liked is the old Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules structure that once stood at Disneyland. I did a plan for it based on old photographs (the structure is long gone), and built a mock-up several years ago with no clear idea of where it might be located on the layout. Putting that structure together with a new grade crossing and a dummy spur for the Marc F. Davis gave me the nucleus of a new scene to greet guests when they visit the TMMC at Thunder Mesa Studio.

Building the Scene

I started by building up the rounded corner of the layout with layers of 1" thick extruded polystyrene foam or EPF. The pieces were cut to shape with a hot-wire tool and then glued in place with Loctite Powergrab adhesive. Then I sanded the layers flush and glued on a curved section of fascia made from illustration board treated with a clear acrylic sealer. It's lightweight, tough, and does the job. Then I painted the corner flat black to match the rest of the layout fascia.

Next I cut a section of Peco On30 flextrack to length and then removed several of the ties to give it more of a hastily-built old siding look. This was then primed and painted, and then glued to the foam roadbed with a bead of Powergrab. This is a dummy spur so it won't be getting any power. The DC motored Marc F. Davis would burn out on the DCC powered tracks of the TMMC.

I cut a piece of 1/8" thick Masonite to size to act as a foundation for my upcoming model of the Thunder Mesa Pack Mules building. This received a wooden boardwalk/porch along two sides made from distressed coffee stir-sticks weathered with an alcohol/shoe dye mixture. A square of illustration board cut to the same dimensions was then glued in place on the scene to save space for the model when ground cover was added in the next step.

I mixed up some Polyblend Sanded Grout in a small plastic container. I measure out small amounts with a paper Dixie cup and then add water slowly, stirring until the mixture is completely wet, but not runny - about 3:1 grout to water. The color grout I use is called "Sandstone" but I usually end up painting or tinting it once it's dry. Then I half poured, half spooned the grout on to the layout surface until the entire scene, except for the track, was covered by a layer about 1/16" to 1/8" thick. Using an old paint brush, I then stippled the grout to give it an uneven, dirt-like texture. As the grout began to set-up, I used a pencil and a model horse figure to add wagon ruts and hoof prints to the road and other high traffic areas.

Turning my attention to the track, red-rock dirt from Sedona was used to ballast the dummy siding and give some variation to the grout. This was then glued in place with a sprayed mixture of matt medium and water, diluted about 4:1. As all of this dried, weeds, grass, and flowers from Scenic Express were planted in likely spots with small dabs of white glue.

Then it was just a matter of touching up the track, and setting the train and structure mock-up back in place to visualize how everything was coming together. There's much more to come on this scene, including some new figures and a humorous vignette that ties the story of the Pack Mules and the new siding together in true Marc Davis fashion. Across the tracks, new livestock pens belonging to the Circle D ranch are slated to be built. Stay tuned for that!

Thanks for checking in! The plan is to make this a new series of weekly updates on the railroad, posting each Saturday or Sunday. Let's see if I can keep it up. Adios for now!