Category: Thunder Mesa Town

Thunder Cam: Thunder Mesa Depot


Howdy Folks! I’m documenting every scene on the layout in these short “Thunder Cam” videos. Each one features Thunder Mesa trains passing through scenes on a typical day (or night) of operations. Supplemental music and sounds have been added where appropriate, but all else is as it might appear on a visit to the layout. As new scenes are finished on the layout, these rail fan style videos will act as supplements to the builds and projects. The ultimate goal is to chronicle the entire layout over time.

This episode shows a midday meet and some switching action at Thunder Mesa Depot. The depot is based on Ward Kimball’s Flats and Disneyland’s Frontierland/New Orleans Square station. Enjoy!


Structure Build: The Panhandle Café


Time for another structure build! This week, it’s the Panhandle Café, inspired by the Panhandle Hotel from the queue of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. Follow along step-by-step as I scratchbuild this quaint O scale Victorian era structure as the latest addition to Thunder Mesa town. Wooden structure building techniques, coloring, roofing, and finishing.

Thanks for watching, amigos!

Building the Thunder Mesa Assay Office


In old west mining towns, the assay office was where would-be prospectors could have their ore samples tested by a chemist to see if they had struck it rich or gone bust. My Thunder Mesa Assay Office was inspired by a similar structure from the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. Follow along step-by-step as I build this charming little adobe structure with its distinctive balcony and southwestern colors. Tips for using a stencil and airbrush to do the lettering too!

Thanks for watching, amigos!

Crescent Creek Model Scale Stucco:


A Fireworks Wagon for Thunder Mesa


Come along as I build an O scale Fireworks Wagon based on artwork from Disneyland! Using kitbashed parts and cg texture/printed paper modeling techniques, I build a 19th century fireworks wagon to compliment Thunder Mesa's digitally projected fireworks show. I hope you enjoy this step-by-step "how to." Patreon subscribers can download the custom artwork created for this project.

Thanks for tuning in, amigos!

Evolution of a Scene: Zocalo Plaza


Zocalo Plaza represents the “Old Spanish” section of town on the On30 Thunder Mesa layout. It’s a quaint village of adobe structures from Tom York’s “Frijole Flats” sketchbook, and anchored by stately Mission San Lorenzo. This scene is unique in that most of the structures, figures, and details started out on a friend’s layout before being relocated. They were all part of Verne Niner’s award winning San Lorenzo diorama and I am very happy to have Verne’s work live on as part of Thunder Mesa. This video shows the evolution of Zocala Plaza, from Verne’s diorama to a finished scene integrated into the layout.

Building a Stone Based Water Tank


This week we have a how-to video describing the build of Thunder Mesa's stone based water tank. I describe the techniques and materials used to create realistic random stone walls, and reveal my secret for perfect graphics on model structures. To go further in depth, he's a gallery of photos from the build as it came together step by step.

The tank base was carved from Balsa Foam II, and then painted with acrylics. Mortar between the stones is spackling compound pressed into the cracks. The doors and wooden trim were stained a warm gray, then dabbed sparingly with rubber cement. These pieces were then painted and the rubber cement rubbed away to create the look of old, peeling paint. The lone window is a modified Grandt Line casting, and the old fashioned rippled glass effect was created by painting Woodland Scenics Realistic water on the back of the acrylic glazing and then drying it quickly with a hair dryer.

The tank and bands are printed paper. I created the entire tank as a graphic in Adobe Photoshop, including the herald, water stains and weathering, and then printed it out on heavy matte inkjet paper. It was then wrapped around a scratchbuilt cylinder and the tank bands were cut from a second printout and applied individually for a 3-D look. White metal tank band fasteners and spout hardware from Wiseman Model Services complete the look. The spout yoke, water depth gauge, and roof hatch were scratchbuilt from scale wood and paper. The paper shingles are from Bar Mills and the roof finial is the head of a dress pin painted copper.

A 5mm yellow LED was added to the hollowed out interior for illumination, and the entire structure weathered with powdered chalks before being installed on the layout. Dimensions are called out at the end of the video if you would like to build a similar tank for yourself.

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

The Haunted Undertaker’s Shop Revisited


As featured in the recent Ghost Story video, Atencio, Crump & Gracey's Undertaker Shop features a built-in Pepper's Ghost illusion. Take a look as I revisit this structure and explain how it was built and how it works!

A Tribute to the Haunted Mansion

The Thunder Mesa Undertaker's Shop was built as part of the original Boot Hill scene on the layout. When that scene expanded with the addition of a Crescent Creek Models Old West Gallows, the structure was relocated across the tracks, giving guests a better view of the ghosts in the attic during nighttime operations. From the beginning, the structure was conceived as a tribute to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, and the name, "Atencio, Crump & Gracey," refers to some of the Imagineers (less Marc Davis) most responsible for the attraction, namely, X Atencio, Rolly Crump, and Yale Gracey.

I designed the structure in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, with the signs and entire front wall created with realistic wood photo textures, printed on inkjet paper, and then laminated to Illustration board. This is still the best technique I've found for re-creating complex graphics and signs on building surfaces. The rest of the structure was built from 1/16" illustration board, scribed, and then painted with watercolors to match the printed front wall with a look of old, whitewashed wood.

The brick chimney was hand-carved from Balsa-Foam II, while the door, window, roof trim, and smokejack castings are from Grandt Line. I used Berkshire Valley fish-scale shingles for the roof, and the front and side porches are decked with distressed and stained coffee stir sticks.

The entire bottom floor of the structure is taken up by the ghost mechanism. This consists of a low RPM dc motor with rotating drum attached. The drum was made from a piece of mailing tube, painted flat black, and then decorated with several ghosts, painted on with UV reactive (Blacklight) paint. As the drum rotates, the ghosts are illuminated by a 5mm UV LED and reflected onto a piece of clear plexiglass set at a 45% angle directly above. When viewed through the upstairs window, the mechanism is invisible, and the transparent ghosts appear to be flying upwards. A removable interior set, decorated with Haunted Mansion details, serves as a background for this ghostly apparition.

All of this happens at the press of a button on the layout fascia, and is accompanied by a custom-mixed spooky soundtrack played on an ITT products sound module. The soundtrack itself is available as a free MP3 download  and is ideal for Halloween parties and haunted houses of your own.

The Haunted Undertaker's Shop is always popular with guests during nighttime operations, adding a spooky accent to the outskirts of Thunder Mesa town. Happy Halloween!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

Update on the Thunder Mesa Riverfront

Building Fowler's Landing


The little mining town of Thunder Mesa sits along the banks of the Rio Frontera, where steamboats up from the Sea of Cortez still deliver passengers and cargo. Follow along as I build the docks at Fowler's Landing and the colorful headquarters of the Western River Expedition Company.

For the new riverfront scene, a 10" wide addition was added to the layout in front of Thunder Mesa Town. This replaced a previous roll-away river module that simply took up too much space and blocked access/viewing of the town and future engine service area. I decided that I really want folks to see the models and scenes that I so laboriously build! This decision made for a narrower aisle, but I believe the trade off was worth it.

Here it looks a little like it snowed down along the Thunder Mesa riverfront, but this is the next step in building the scenery along El Rio Frontera. Sculptamold is applied over and around the foam pieces to add texture and blend things together. After this dries overnight it gets a coat of the scenic base color.

Skipping ahead, here's the final look of the rockwork after painting with acrylics. The process is to apply a scenic base color (raw sienna in my case), then use a diluted black wash to bring out the shadows and details. Then, gradually lighter and bolder colors are lightly brushed on until I'm satisfied with the look.

As is my usual practice, I built a cardstock mock-up to make sure everything I had planned for the scene would fit. The white card is the footprint for a 50' river steamer.

The docks were Scratchbuilt in place with dimensional basswood, dowels for the piles and good old coffee stir sticks for the decking. All of the wood was distressed with a razor saw and stained with an alcohol/shoe dye mixture prior to assembly with carpenter's glue. The stairs down to the lower dock are from Grandt Line, while all of the "rope" is #8 crochet thread in a natural color. Grandt nut/bolt/washer castings were used on the joists and sway braces and other details come from various manufacturers. The stair balusters and upper deck railing were made with fancy wooden toothpicks. Just in case anyone is foolish or drunk enough to fall in the river, I added the Western River Expedition Co. life ring. It was created in Adobe Photoshop and printed out on heavy paper. I then used a very fine emery-board to round off the edges before adding the scale rope.

Naturally, crews need a way to get freight from the riverboat dock to trackside and vise-versa. I scratchbuilt this armstrong jib crane with some Crow River, Berkshire Valley, and Grandt Line details. The winch line is elastic thread.

With the docks themselves just about finished, I began work on the Western River Expedition Co. building at Fowler's Landing. It was Scratchbuilt using some laser cut walls I had lying around from another project. The battens were individually applied, then I started adding some color, weathering as I went. The design, layout and colors of the structure were all chosen to compliment the depot scene across the tracks. Setting the structure at a 90º angle to the depot acts as a framing device to help bracket the scene and focus the viewers attention.

Doors, windows and trim were added (most modified Grandt Line castings) before starting on the roof. I used real cedar wooden shingles over an illustration board base, and the distinctive cupola was built up from scale basswood and flashed with real copper strips. The gingerbread roof trim was leftover from my depot build, and the various signs and posters were all created in Photoshop.

Some final details were the crossed oars on the upstream side and the nautical looking jib above the cargo doors.

Like most of my structures, Fowler's Landing has lights. The interior is illuminated by a single 2.5 mm constant yellow LED, while the exterior lamp houses a 2.5mm flickering yellow LED. The lamp itself was built from a doubled and rolled up piece of Scotch Magic Tape with parts from my scrap box. To keep the structure removable, it's a simple press-fit on a rectangle of foamcore attached to the wooden dock. 12V DC power comes from below the dock (and the layout) and is distributed via some very handy dollhouse wiring tape. A mini plug and socket for the porch-light keeps the structure removable. Proper polarity for the LEDs is maintained using color coded wiring (red for +, black for -). All of the window glazing is fogged using Scotch Tape so the interior and wiring does not show when the lamps are illuminated.

With the structures complete, I began adding more details on and around the docks. Looks like Old Bob's got a big catfish on the line - even though the water hasn't been poured yet! The figure is by Arttista with scratchbuilt fishing pole. Just downriver from the docks, Tom and Huck's raft is pulled in close to shore in yet another nod to the Disneyland inspiration.

And that's it for the build of Fowler's Landing! Next will come the 50' river steamer that will be the true centerpiece of this scene. After that, I can actually finish modeling the river itself with epoxy resin. Stay tuned!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

A New Depot for Thunder Mesa


It all started with a kind gift from my friend Robert Kurner. You may remember Robert as the delightfully creative fellow behind the tiki/jungle cruise/typhoon lagoon themed Jungle Navigation Company Railroad. Anyway, Robert gave me one of the old Scale Structures LTD Grizzly Flats Depot kits in O scale. The kit was based on the depot for Ward Kimball's 3' gauge Grizzly Flats backyard railroad, but its history goes farther back than that. Ward had found drawings of an old Lehigh Valley Railroad flag depot while doing research for the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart.  Walt liked the design and so a set was built for the film based upon those drawings (fun trivia fact: a facsimile of Walt's Carolwood Barn also appears as a set in the film). When filming was completed in 1949, Ward asked Walt if he could have the structure for his backyard railroad in San Gabriel, CA. Walt said, sure, if you cam get it out of here, and Ward trucked the set piece home. Then, he and his wife Betty spent the next several years converting the flimsy, unfinished movie set into an actual usable structure with four solid walls and a finished interior. A few years later when Walt was building Disneyland, he saw that nice looking depot on Ward's property and asked if he might have it back for his new park. Ward called him an "Indian giver" and a few other choice names and flatly refused his boss' request. That left Walt with no choice but to dig out those old Lehigh Valley flag stop plans again and have the studio carpenters build a new version for Frontierland at Disneyland. The Disneyland version differs in a few details from Ward's depot, but the overall Victorian gingerbread flavor is the same.

Being well versed in the history, I've aways had a great fondness for this structure and decided right away that I needed to build a version for my Thunder Mesa layout. The only problem was where to put it.

Years ago, I had already scracthbuilt a small depot for my Thunder Mesa town and was quite fond of its looks and proportions. My solution was to move the old depot to the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge where I knew it would fit in perfectly with the small, charming structures there. This freed up the necessary real estate for a new depot at Thunder Mesa.

I began planning for the new depot in January of 2019, but didn't finish the project until March 2020. It didn't need to take that long, but one thing leads to another and I got involved with several other projects along the way. This often happens and I know it can be frustrating for those trying to follow along. I've condensed the entire build here from start to finish as a record and guide for anyone interested.

Like most of my builds, it all started with a paper mock-up...

With the old depot relocated to Rainbow Ridge, I built a paper model mock-up of the Grizzly Flats depot to make sure everything would fit. It did - just barely! This mock-up was made from the Frontierland Station plans you can download free on this website.

The overall footprint is just a little larger than the old depot but the clearances were just fine.

Here are all of the parts laid out prior to painting and assembly. Only the fancy roof brackets and trim are from the original kit. My friend and business partner Jake Johnson had been working on a set of laser cut replacement parts for this kit and I had him cut a set for me. I wanted a depot that was a hybrid between the Grizzly Flats and Frontierland depots, so these parts allow for a door on one end and a window on the other. Disneyland's depot also has double doors and a bay window on both sides. On my version, there is a single door and one bay window on the track facing side like Grizzly Flats.

A coat of primer on the exterior walls for the new depot. Gotta love the fit on those laser cut pieces! The walls pieces are 1/16" MDF with tabbed joinery at the corners. This is a dry fit with no glue yet.

The platform base is a solid piece of 1/4" thick MDF, cut to shape, and the planking is coffee stir sticks that have been distressed with a razor saw and stained with my favorite alcohol and shoe dye mixture. The depot footprint was cut from illustration board and cemented in place as a guide for the planking. Nail holes were added with a hard HB pencil.

Usually the hardest part of any Grizzly Flats type depot kit is building the intricate bay window. Even with laser cut pieces, this was a challenge, but I wanted to get it done right first before moving on to the rest of the structure. As per my usual practice, all parts were painted before assembly. I decided to stick with the Frontierland/ NOS color scheme of Ivory and Hunter Green and the paints used were inexpensive spray enamels with a satin finish.

With the bay window sub-assembly complete, I took the time to create two-sided, double hung windows from the laser cut parts since the structure is going to have a detailed interior. I added some blinds to the bay window, then made a  start on all that fancy trim.

At the same time that I was working on the exterior walls, doors and windows, I also made a start on the depot interior. The interior walls are 1/16" thick Crescent illustration board left in its natural color, and the wainscoting and trim are dark walnut stained basswood. The roll-up blinds are painted masking tape, doubled and wrapped around toothpicks.

Here is the nearly completed interior opened up like a doll's house. I wanted the interior to look cluttered and busy, walls lined with memorabilia - just like Ward's GF depot. There are a ton of Grizzly Flats and Disney references here if you look closely. The closet like nook in the corner will hide electrical wiring for the lights.

An overhead view of the completed interior. The floor is scribed basswood, stained to a golden oak color. Details are from Berkshire Valley, Wiseman Model Service, Banta, and my scrap box. The Navajo rug was printed from an image I found online and the Thunder Mesa sign is a remnant from the original scratchbuilt depot.

Here, work has begun on the exterior details. The fancy roof corbels are white metal castings from the Scale Structures LTD Grizzly Flats kit. Seen thru the bay window, the telegraph operator is an Aspen Modeling Co. figure. The fella with the dog is none other than Chuckawalla Slim from Verne Niner's Estrella & Sonora Grande. The train order board was created in Photoshop, and the doormats are 300 grit sandpaper painted dark gray.

The roof was built as a separate assembly and designed to be removable as shown in the video. This allows for continued access to the interior details and lighting if required.

The roof is in place and nearly all of the fancy trim has been added. I lost track of all the compound angles I cut for that roof trim. Note the new "Thunder Mesa" sign below the eaves. This placement is consistent with the Grizzly Flats depot.

Shingling the roof and getting the lights working. The depot has five 3mm LEDs, 2 warm white to light the interior, and 3 exterior yellow lights to simulate lanterns. The one over the front door flickers. The shingles are real cedar from Crescent Creek Models.

Proof that I never throw anything away and that it eventually finds its way onto the layout. Here's a look at the wiring inside the depot's attic. Yes, that's an old Atlas Connector pulling duty as a power strip. I wanted some sort of terminal strip in case I ever have to change the bulbs (unlikely with LEDs, but still) and this old piece of junk fit the bill just fine. As a bonus, I can even slide the switches and turn some of the lights on or off if I want to. Note that it is cemented to a removable ceiling that prevents light leaks around the roof.

Almost finished! The roof has been completed by adding cap shingles, gingerbread trim, and the main Thunder Mesa sign (which is a callback to the original Frontierland station sign at Disneyland). All that's really left to do now is add a few more details to the platform.

Testing the lights in this nighttime view of the depot scene. You can almost hear the telegraph key clicking and the crickets chirping.

The 2-sided Western Union Telegraph sign was based on a similar sign at Disneyland. It was created in Photoshop and printed on thick paper. The sign bracket was made by soldering together some music wire and a dress pin.

Small holes were drilled in the front wall to accept the sign bracket and it was cemented in place. The ability to add little details like this is one of the reasons I model in O scale.

had a lot of fun detailing the depot platform, arranging the figures and other elements to enhance the overall story. Figures here are from Knuckleduster Miniatures and Woodland Scenics, painted by me.

A scratchbuilt a-frame sign directs arriving passengers to the Panhandle Cafe just across Main Street. The baggage wagon was assembled from a Banta kit.

I decided that arriving passengers might need to refresh themselves after their long rail journey so I scracthbuilt this privy next to the depot. It was assembled from basswood and illustration board, detailed and painted to match the depot. It's important to note that not all 19th century outhouses were nasty shacks with moons cut in the door!

A look at the privy with the lanterns aglow. The lantern is a casting that came with the Grizzly Flats Depot kit. It was non-functional but I added a flickering yellow LED so passengers might find their way in the dark. By the way, it is an agreed upon fact amongst the Thunder Mesa locals that the depot has the best toilets in town.

Another final detail was this loading dock between the parallel tracks in Thunder Mesa town. It's built from O scale lumber and coffee stir sticks, stained a weathered gray with my favorite alcohol and shoe dye mixture.

Over behind the depot, I built some stairs to connect the backdoor to upper Main Street. This is one of those details hardly anyone will ever see, but I know it's there.

What's a privy without a place to wash up? The horse trough was scratchbuilt with "water" made from clear acrylic sheet painted murky green on the back. The hand pump is a casting from Berkshire Valley and the grass and flowers are from Scenic Express. For the small Pinon pine, I used a Woodland Scenics armature with the correct bushy shape but epoxied on a couple extra branches. Then I sprayed the whole thing with Super 77 adhesive and sprinkled on N scale ballast for bark texture. Then I airbrushed the tree dark brown and grey before gluing on Woodland Scenics dark green foliage clumps.

A set of stairs were also built for the freight platform. These are the same stairs that come with Crescent Creek Models O scale Gallows Kit.

And with that, the new depot project was finished. In this shot from Sept, 2020, the ground cover has been worked in up to the edges of the platform and a few new weeds have sprouted up. The previously installed telegraph sound unit from ITT Products below the layout now welcomes guests to the new Thunder Mesa Depot just as it did for the old.

This was a challenging, fun, and rewarding project to build, and I am very happy with the results. The new depot adds tons of charm and character to Thunder Mesa town, just as the structures that inspired it did for Ward's Grizzly Flats and Walt's Disneyland. Many thanks to Robert, Jake and the others who helped me on this project.

That's it from Thunder Mesa. Until next time, adios for now!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

A Thunder Mesa Excursion Special


All aboard for a Grand Circle Tour thru Nature's Wonderland on this Thunder Mesa Excursion Special! Enjoy the sights and sounds along the way as we explore the Living Desert, Geyser Gulch, Rainbow Caverns, Natural Arch Bridge and more. Stops at Calico, Tumbleweed, Los Feliz Jct, and Rainbow Ridge. Apologies in advance for some unfinished scenery and empty excursion cars. Thunder Mesa is always a work in progress!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,