Thunder Mesa Blog

Open Studio & Train Day ~ Saturday, Nov 4

Join us 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 our events page for full details!

Train Night Preview, Free Stuff, and a Big Thank You

Hey, folks! Just a few quick announcements before I rush out the door to get ready for tonight's Open Studio. First, check out my latest video (above) from the Thunder Mesa Studio YouTube channel to see a preview of nighttime operations on the TMMC. Then, click on back here and get free MP3 downloads of the Night Sounds and Haunted Undertaker Shop soundtracks used on the layout. Just in time for Halloween!

Thunder Mesa Night Sounds Free MP3 Download

Haunted Undertaker's Shop Free MP3 Download

 

Free Standard Shipping Thru Oct 9 at the Thunder Mesa Spreadshirt Shop!

And for another awesome deal, visit the Thunder Mesa Studio Spreadshirt Shop and get free standard shipping on all the cool designs right up through Monday, October 9th. Just enter this code at checkout:

FSH17

Thank You!

A very special "thank you" to everyone who has followed the progress of Thunder Mesa over the years, read my articles, commented on these posts and videos, sent me cool stuff, purchased my designs, or made a contribution towards the completion of the railroad. You guys are the best and I am humbled by the positive responses I have received. The layout exists to entertain and bring joy and there's much more to come. 

Happy Halloween!

Yes, I know it's still weeks away, but tonight's Open Studio will kick off the season for me and Halloween is my favorite holiday after all. The photos above were taken during last night's final lighting and effects check and that got me in the just the right mood for this spooky season. Hope to see some of you there tonight! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!


My Latest Column in Model Railroad Hobbyist

A New Home For Thunder Mesa

My latest Imagineering column for Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine is now available to read online.  In it, I take a detailed look at "imagineering the move" of the Thunder Mesa Mining Co. layout from my old home to my new studio in Jerome, AZ, and at prepping the space and painting the backdrop there. You can read it here: Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine.


 

Open Studio and Train NIGHT – Saturday, Oct 7

Kick off the Halloween season in Jerome with our first ever Open Studio & Train NIGHT at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. See night operations on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company model railroad,  and  the Moonrise in the night sky over Thunder Mesa! Experience the new Haunted Undertaker's Shop and spooky Boot Hill Graveyard. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk. Free Halloween treats 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.

Boot Hill Part 3 and The Haunted Undertaker’s Shop

Studio Update - Sep 30, 2017

My Undertaker's Shop tribute to Disney's Haunted Mansion is just about finished as of this writing, with just a few more small details to add. The same is true across the street at Boot Hill Graveyard, where a new picket fence and a gnarled old tree have sprouted up. This week's video log goes into detail on the "illusioneering" and special effects at the Undertaker's Shop, and shows how I built the "Lantern Tree" in the graveyard from twisted picture wire and acrylic modeling paste. I'm pleased with how these scenes have turned out and quite happy to have them done in advance of next Saturday's Open Studio & Train Night.

The Undertaker's Parlor of Messrs. Atencio, Crump and Gracey has been installed in its plot near the front edge of the layout. A follower of the TMMC Facebook page suggested that I rotate the structure 90º to give guests a better view of the interior effects and that turned out to be an excellent suggestion. Thanks for that! Below decks, an ITT Products sound module with a 2", 8 ohm speaker plays a spooky 2-minute soundtrack that I created. George at ITT products was very helpful when creating this custom sound module and I highly recommend his products. Both the soundtrack and the interior Pepper's Ghost effect are activated by one of the "Big Red Buttons" that guests can push on the layout fascia. There's much more on the Pepper's Ghost effect in this week's Thunder Mesa video log.

Check out the video below for part 2 of the time-lapse Undertaker's Shop build.

Over at Boot Hill, I've been putting the finishing touches on the scene with a weathered wooden fence and a gnarled old Juniper tree that has a flickering lantern hanging from the branches. I wanted some sort of illumination for the scene during night operations and this seemed like a fun and clever option.

The picket fence was built from Grandt Line castings with scratch-built wooden posts between them. The knobs on top of the fenceposts are dress-pin heads. The fence was assembled in three large sections at the workbench where it was primed and painted before being installed in the scene. I primed it with Krylon flat grey before drybrushing on splotchy coats of light tan and white acrylics to simulate weathered and faded paint on a wooden fence. I still need to add the iconic "Boot Hill" sign to the crossbar above the gate.

I built the tree using braided picture-hanging wire, twisting several strands together to create the trunk and then unraveling the ends to simulate smaller branches and twigs. Some some scrap-box bits were glued to a 3mm yellow flickering LED to make a lantern, and then the soldered on leads were hidden within the tree's armature.  All of this was then coated with three or four applications of acrylic modeling paste to build up texture, taking care not to cover the lantern itself. I let the paste dry overnight before finishing the trunk with a dark brown primer, followed by several dry-brushings with lighter shades of tan and grey acrylics. The tree was then installed on the layout and Woodland Scenics dark green foliage clumps were cemented on with Aleene's Tacky Glue. You can see a time-lapse of the tree being built in this week's video log.

I'm pretty pleased overall with how the entire scene has come together. As usual, it turned out to be a little more complex than I had originally planned as additional effects and details were added, but I'm very happy to have it (mostly) done in time for the Halloween season! 

I'm not quite sure which project I'll be tackling next. There are a few more lighting effects I'd like to finish up before next weekend, but I'm also more than ready to get back to work on the Thunder Mesa Riverfront and its 50' paddle-wheel steamer. Right now, it's time to clean up the studio and get organized again after the last two weeks of frenzied modeling. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

PS: As a bonus for following along, I'm offering the ambient night sounds of Thunder Mesa and the Haunted Undertaker's Shop soundtrack as free Mp3 downloads. I created both of these tracks for the layout and they can be downloaded and played on any MP3 capable devise. Add a little nighttime atmosphere to your own layout or a spooky Halloween soundtrack. Have fun!

Thunder Mesa Night Sounds

Haunted Undertaker's Shop


Thunder Mesa T-shirts from Spreadshirt.com

Boot Hill Part 2 and the Old Jerome Cemetery

Studio Update - Sep 16, 2017

We're halfway through the month and I'm up to my eyeballs in new projects ahead of the Oct 7th Open Studio & Train Night. Still, I did find a little time to go exploring at the old Jerome Miner's Cemetery, my little town's answer to Boot Hill. And speaking of Boot Hill, that's one of the main project that's been occupying my studio time this week and the primary subject of this week's video log. I'm also deep into construction on the neighboring undertaker's shop, a project that should add some spooky new fun to the layout.

The old Jerome Miner's Cemetery is a little hard to find if you don't know where to look and most visitors to Jerome don’t ever go there.  It's a spooky and somber kind of place, and public records indicate that over 500 burials took place there. The oldest visible markers date to the 1890’s but there are undoubtably some much older graves whose markers have been lost to the ravages of time. Most of the readable markers display Mexican or Italian surnames - indicating this was a graveyard for the poorer immigrant labor-class of old Jerome. A little research reveals many tragic stories of death among the miners and other citizens. There were terrible mine accidents, disease, murders, and some quick frontier justice. Many of the graves are just shallow, unmarked holes in the ground, while others are more elaborate, surrounded by gothic wrought iron fences. I just love having this authentic bit of Old West history right here in my backyard.

The structure mock-up I teased in last week's video log has been revealed to be the undertaking parlor of Messrs. Atencio, Crump and Gracey, three well-known names among Disney Haunted Mansion fans. This is my small tribute to the Haunted Mansion and so far things are moving along at a good pace. Construction uses my preferred method of textured and painted illustration board. I created the façade and signs in Adobe Photoshop and then printed them out on heavy HP premium presentation paper using the photo-quality settings on my home inkjet printer. The printed façade was then laminated to Cresent 300 cold pressed illustration board using 3M 45 General Purpose Spray Adhesive before being cut to shape with a hobby knife. I'll go into more detail on the build in a future post, including the addition of a spooky Pepper's Ghost effect that will animate behind the upstairs window. In the meantime, here's a time lapse video of the structure build so far.

The construction of Boot Hill is well covered in the last two Thunder Mesa video logs (see last week's here), and next week's should see the project through to completion. I'll just add that the grave markers use the exact same printed paper texture technique that I've used on many structures and even on a couple of rolling stock projects. Researching, planning, and building the scene has been a whole mess of fun. Epitaphs on the markers are a mix of some borrowed from Disney's Haunted Mansion, Boot Hill in Tombstone, AZ, Knott's Berry Farm, and a couple originals I came up with that reference favorite movies like Blazing Saddles and the Bob Hope classic, Paleface. I started out with a goal of making 13 grave markers but actually wound up with closer to 20.

Next week I'll finish up Boot Hill by adding some fencing, lighting, and other details, and go more in depth on the Undertaker's place. So far everything is on schedule for the Oct 7th open studio where there will be a few other surprises in store too. Stay tuned! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!


Postscript: On a sad note, while I was building the new undertaker's structure and preparing this blog, I learned that legendary Disney animator and Imagineer X Atencio had passed away at the age of 98. Francis Xavier "X" Atencio was a wonderful, multitalented artist who will probably be best remembered by Disney fans as the show writer and lyricist for both the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Without X there would have been no "Yo Ho, Yo Ho," or "Grim Grinning Ghosts." Here's a lovely video tribute to X Atencio from the good folks at Fresh Baked Disney.  

Thunder Mesa T-shirts from Spreadshirt.com

Boot Hill Part 1 and a New Video Log

Studio Update - Sep 8, 2017

This week I started on a few new projects in preparation for next month's Halloween themed Open Studio & Train Night. Halloween has always been my favorite time of year and I'm looking forward to sharing some new scenes and fun night effects on the TMMC. Chief among these is the new Boot Hill scene that I've chosen to build at the front edge of Thunder Mesa town. This spot was recently home to a dummy spur track, installed as a convenient place for displaying the vertical boiler Marc F. Davis locomotive. That didn't last long though and TMMC #1 has now been relocated a little farther down the line. Check out this week's video log, where I show off some recently acquired vintage Lionel equipment, and to see the new Boot Hill scene begin to take shape. Below,  I'll go into a bit more detail on how Boot Hill is coming together.

The first order of business was taking up the dummy spur and scraping away most of the sanded grout and real dirt that made up the ballast and ground cover. Removing the spur was an easy decision since it had really become a track to nowhere. Once I started building the Thunder Mesa Riverfront it no longer made much sense as a stand alone scene. I popped the track off of the foam base with a putty knife and then scraped away the rest, taking care to preserve and save as many of the weeds, flowers, and clumps of pricey Scenic Express grass as I could.

Then it was off to my big box of scrap foam pieces for a likely sized chunk of pink EPF (extruded polystyrene foam). After cutting the rough shape with a hot-wire cutter, a sanding block was used to shape it into a low hill. Then I traced the outlines of several 1/4" scale graves with a hard lead pencil, and cut one empty grave out completely with a hobby knife. Then the hill was glued into place with Loctite Power Grab construction adhesive.

After that came the fun part, sculpting and blending the hill into the scenery base with Sculptamold. For some of the graves I added raised humps of Sculptamold, and for others I made a shallow depression to simulate older graves that had settled. A large hump of excavated "dirt" next to the open grave adds a touch of realism.

Once the Sculptamold had dried, everything was painted to match the rest of the scenery with my scenic base color. This is a lightened Raw Sienna tone that I have pre-mixed in a flat latex at my local home center. After that dried, I stippled on a thin layer of Polyblend sanded grout to enhance the dirt texture.

I dug the open grave down a bit deeper into the scenery base and then installed a 5mm diffused blue LED. This will be one part of the lighting package for the entire scene and should offer a spooky glow from regions beyond when activated.

The last thing added was a new structure mock-up to replace the Pack Mules building since it no longer made much sense being next to a graveyard. I don't want to say too much about the new structure yet - you can see the mock-up in the video - but I'll be ready to reveal much more about it by next week.

Last but not least, the less-than-fully-operational Marc F. Davis was moved down the line to be part of the scene at Saguaro Siding. This track is almost never used in operations and can be electrically isolated from the rest of the layout. An important consideration since the Marc F. Davis is DC powered and the motor would quickly burn up with exposure to higher DCC voltages. It will probably stay in this spot for quite awhile.

As for me, I gotta keep moving forward. There are many projects in the works and I'm having a lot of fun with all of them. Wait 'till you see the moon over Thunder Mesa! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

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Thunder Cam

The Thunder Cam playlist on the Thunder Mesa Studio YouTube channel was created as a place to share simple, sparingly edited videos of trains running on the layout. The sites and sounds are recorded live, most recently during our first Saturday Open Studio & Train Days each month. These videos are for hardcore train nerds and are really my way of documenting the layout as it grows and changes over time. Enjoy.

Laying Track in Calico and This Week’s Video Log

Studio Update - Sep 1, 2017

This week I was able to spend a few enjoyable hours completing the track work through the new Calico town section. As usual, Peco On30 flextrack and turnouts were used, just as they have been on the entire Thunder Mesa layout.  This track is tough, easy to work with and operates very well. As a bonus, it's chunky, caricatured appearance fits in perfectly with the TMMC as it resembles track on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Click on this week's video log above for a few track laying tips and tricks, as well as a little ghost railroad hunting along the old right-of-way of the United Verde & Pacific, Jerome's fabled narrow gauge line from 1895. Below, I'll go into a bit more detail on some of the track laying particulars for this project.

One thing I didn't really cover in this week's video log was the installation of the wye turnout that connects the rest of the layout to the new Calico town section. This was a little tricky since the turnout needed to be located on a curved section of the existing mainline. After a bit of trial and error, I found the sweet spot where the curvature of the proposed wye best matched the existing curve on the mainline and then planned the rest of the track into Calico from there. I marked where the ends of the turnout would fall and then cut out and removed the matching section of mainline.

I've recently begun adding Tam Valley Depot Frog Juicers to the turnouts to improve DCC performance. In the photo above you can see a simple modification made to the wye turnout where a length of wire has been soldered to the thin wire that brings power from the points to the frog. This wire will be connected to a Frog Juicer to provide constant current to the frog while automatically changing polarity when the points are thrown. The Frog Juicer itself will be installed below decks at a later date.

A small hole for the wire was drilled below the frog's position and then the turnout was installed, making sure to add insulated rail joiners to prevent shorting when current is fed from the open, non-point end of the turnout. A couple of Atlas track nails on the connecting tracks hold everything firmly in place.

The rest of the track installation is covered pretty thoroughly in this week's video log, but there are a few points I should emphasize.

  • I always solder rail connections on curves, but almost never on turnouts or straight sections of track. This allows for expansion and contraction of the rail during changes in humidity and also makes it much easier to remove a turnout and replace it should that become necessary.
  • I use either glue or track nails to hold the track in place (though rarely both), and always use nails on sharp curves or anywhere I need the flextrack to firmly hold its shape.
  • I do not glue or nail turnouts to the roadbed. Connections on adjoining tracks make this unnecessary and, again, not nailing them down makes them easy to remove should the need arise.
  • Always pay attention to how power flows through the rails and follow the manufacturer's instructions on where to place gaps or insulated rail joints on turnouts to prevent short circuits.

And lastly: have fun! Model railroading really is fun if you take your time, enjoy what you're doing and don't take it all too seriously. Remember, when all is said and done, we're just grown-ups playing with trains. Make the most of it.

Here's a bonus video showing the first train into Calico after I dropped some feeder wires and hooked the new track up to the DCC bus. Enjoy!

Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!