In this installment I head over to Sedona to find some red rock inspiration before tacking a large new section of scenery on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company On30 layout. I show some scenery building techniques, working with EPF foam and Sculpatamold, before applying a scenic color base coat.
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!
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:
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.
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!
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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!
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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.
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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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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.
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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!
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Studio Update - Aug 26, 2017
This past week I did more work on the new Calico section, repainting an area of the backdrop that will be behind the town to look a bit more like the desert hills around the real Calico Ghost Town near Yermo, CA. Many thanks to former Calico resident K.D. Younger for sending me a disc full of photos from her days there. I also found a little time to do some ghost-mine hunting this week and paid a visit to the Audrey Shaft Head-frame at the Little Daisy Mine in Jerome. Click on this week's video log above for a visit to the mine, some backdrop painting, and other assorted antics.
When I originally painted this section of the backdrop a few months ago, I really didn't have a clear idea about what to build in this new section of the layout. Once the decision was reached to relocate Calico town there, I knew that the backdrop would need to be altered to fit the scene. I started by studying photos of the mountains around Calico, and then lightly sketching in a rocky profile with pencil. Fortunately, I still had a lot of paint left over in several shades that were specially mixed for the backdrop and I blocked in the basic shapes with a medium brown tone.
The next step was to start defining the shapes a bit with a slightly darker shadow color. That was then followed by a lighter, more saturated color on the areas where sun would be hitting the rocks. When working with acrylic or, in this case, latex paints, I've found that it's best to start with medium values and then work darker and lighter from there, saving the highlights and darkest shadows for the final steps.
Then it was just a matter of building on these medium tones with lighter and darker shades to give definition to areas of sunlight and shadow. Again, most of the colors used were already pre-mixed from the earlier backdrop painting and I highly recommend this approach. My practice is to experiment and then mix up small amounts of the colors I'll need with artist's acrylics. These colors are then painted on to small, 2x2" pieces of white cardstock, and labeled on the back with names like "medium sandstone," "red sandstone," "dark shadow," etc. Then I take these cards down to my local home center and have the colors matched and mixed up by the quart as interior flat latex. This system ensures that I always have color samples at hand, and that one section of the backdrop will always match (and not clash with) another section, even if they are painted several months apart.
The final step was to bring the entire scene up to the same level of finish as other parts of the backdrop. This is when the final, lightest highlights are added and small details like trees and bushes are painted in. Obviously, I don't go for photo-realism on the backdrop, just a believable scene that will blend with and compliment the 3-d foreground scenery to come. The challenge here at Calico was to convey the rugged, Mojave Desert feel of the mountains there, while still matching the colors and character of earlier sections of the backdrop. I hope I pulled it off.
That's going to wrap it up for this week. Just a quick reminder that next Saturday, September 2, is the next Open Studio & Train Day at Thunder Mesa Studio and I hope to see some of you there. Also, a big thank you to those who have taken advantage of the 15% off coupon and free shipping going on now through August 31 at the Thunder Mesa Spreadshirt shop. The coupon code is: EAAIZSF9
Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!
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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!
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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!
Bonus video! Climb aboard Combine 101 for a Grand Circle Tour of the Thunder Mesa layout as the daily mixed train makes its rounds.