My first school bus conversion (skoolie) was an escape. I was living under the dual thumbs of my student loans and mortgage, and working two jobs to pay for a life I didn’t have time to enjoy. After a crash course in converting a 16-seat school bus into a dwelling, I had both an outlet for adventure and an income source I loved (West Virginia’s top-rated Airbnb since 2015).
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Why on Earth did I convert a retired school bus into a mobile tiny home? Simple: Big yellow buses are cheap and durable. A used bus at auction goes for around $2,000 to $5,000—about 10 percent of the cost of a used RV. And where RVs are designed to be lightweight, buses are designed to work. That gets you a steel-framed body and steel paneling on top of a heavy-duty commercial truck frame. And under the hood, most school buses feature commercial-grade diesel engines that fleet mechanics have reliably maintained for years.
My book, Skoolie!: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle, covers every step of the process, along with time-, sweat-, and money-saving insights I’ve picked up along the way. But to show (and hopefully inspire) anyone who can hold an angle grinder that they’re capable of building a home on wheels, I’m sharing the basic process for converting a school bus into a clean, well-insulated room to outfit as you please.
School Bus Conversion Step #1: Demolition
You’ll start demolition by removing the seats, followed by the floor, then the wall and ceiling panels (as desired). Then, there are odds and ends to remove, as well as wiring issues to address.
The two most useful tools you’ll need for the demo process are a power drill and an angle grinder. For hand tools, you should have a standard and a metric set of socket wrenches, a combination wrench set, screwdrivers, a pry bar, and a couple pairs of locking pliers.
Seats: Most seat bolts are corroded or have a nut under the bus that turns with the bolt. Instead of using a wrench, aim your angle grinder cutting wheel at the base of the bolts at a slight angle to slice into the bolt.
Walls and Ceiling Panels: Removing the wall panels in your bus can be as easy as unscrewing a ton of Phillips screws or as challenging as grinding or drilling out a ton of rivets. Regardless, remove the original thin metal interior siding to inspect for rust, allow for better insulation, and open up options for custom wall paneling.
Demolishing the original ceiling panels is done exactly the same way as the wall panels. A lot of air temperature is lost and gained through the ceiling, so you might want to replace the old insulation with newer, more efficient insulation.
Floor Prep: The original floor needs to go. You don’t want to build your skoolie over a floor that may be rotted and rusty. And, removing the original floor allows you to add a new insulated surface to help maintain a comfortable temperature inside. Insulation also cuts down on road noise.
Most school buses have a top floor layer of thick rubber over 1⁄2-inch or 3⁄4-inch plywood that sits on top of the primary metal floor. As you get the rubber to pull up, you can grab it and peel it back by hand. It helps to have someone prying along the bottom edge of the rubber as you pull.
Next, remove the plywood layer. The plywood is usually glued to the metal in various shapes and sizes. The pry bar is your tool of choice for this step, and a second pry bar doesn’t hurt. Once you pry up an edge of each plywood piece, you can begin pulling the wood up by hand.
Wiring: Many of the smaller demo items—alarms, speakers, lights—involve wiring. In many cases, you can remove an item that has wiring running to it and simply cap off each wire with a wire nut. Sometimes, however, wiring configurations are interconnected with the bus’s starting system, so make sure the bus starts up after each wiring change. If the bus fails to start, you’ll know which wire(s) caused the problem.
Overhead speakers were originally used for intercom systems, but they can be connected to a stereo. You may opt to leave these speakers in place, replace them with higher-quality units, or simply cover them up. Another option is to replace them with lights, which requires replacing the cabling (12- or 14-gauge wiring is sufficient for most 12-volt lighting).
Passenger Heaters: These heaters use coolant from the engine to generate heat that radiates into the passenger area. You first have to disconnect the coolant input and output hoses and connect them together to bypass the heater. You make the connection with a barbed union fitting for hoses.
Underneath the bus, below where the heater is located, you will see two black hoses going up through the bus floor and connecting to the bottom inputs of the heater with clamps. Use locking pliers to pinch the hoses closed, clamping the pliers a couple inches away from the ends so there’s room to fit on the barbed union.
Then, loosen the hose clamp on the input hose with a flat-head screwdriver and slip the clamp out of the way. Pull the hose from the heater input. Insert one end of the barbed union all the way into the open end of the hose, and secure the hose over the union with the clamp. Repeat this step with the other hose from the heater to connect it to the other end of the union. Be prepared for coolant spillage and have a five-gallon bucket handy to catch any coolant that spills from inside the heater.
School Bus Conversion Step #2: Prepping Construction
With your bus gutted and the interior surface materials out of the way, you now have a much clearer view of any rust or corrosion issues, and you’re ready to prepare your blank canvas for its new finishes. You’ll start with the floor, which usually needs the most work, then you’ll seal up the walls and windows, and finish with a quick check of the ceiling.
Cleaning and Painting the Floor: Surface rust on the floor will be easy to handle in most cases: Bus floors are thick, and there is enough metal there that you can grind off superficial rust spots with a wire brush and still have a very solid surface.
Start cleaning the floor with a wire brush attached to an angle grinder or drill to remove dirt, grime, glue, and surface rust; then, vacuum up the debris. Treat the rusted areas that don’t need patching with a rust converter. I like POR-15 and have found that a one-pint kit from POR-15 works well for a midsize bus with an average amount of surface rust.
If you find areas with large flakes of rust, and the floor feels soft or flexes as you put weight on it, you have a more serious rust issue. Test to see how solid the rust spot is by poking it with a screwdriver. If the screwdriver goes through the floor, you will need to cut away the rusted metal with a grinder, then patch the hole with new metal. If the hole is smaller than five inches, you can patch over it with thin scrap metal and metal adhesive, such as JB Weld. Make sure the patch is a few inches larger than the hole so there’s plenty of margin for adhesive. Holes five inches or larger should be covered with a welded patch that is flush with the floor rather than resting or overlapping on top of the surrounding metal.
The next step is to fill in or patch over the holes where the seat bolts were. You can use small pieces of thin metal (pennies or metal from the interior walls you removed will work), sealed with 100 percent silicone caulk to fill in the holes.
When all holes are covered and the silicone has completely cured (about 24 hours), your floor is ready for a coat of paint. One coat of oil-based paint will work to cover the floor, as it will never be exposed to the sun or weather.
Sealing Walls, Windows, and Ceiling: You’re less likely to have rust issues in your walls than in your floors, but if you find any spots, treat them in the same fashion as the rust spots on the floor: wire-brushing to remove the rust, then treating with a rust converter.
With a garden hose, inspect your bus’s windows for leaks, which spring up when the exterior caulk ages and dries out, or peels away, allowing rainwater to seep in. If you see failed caulking, remove all the remaining old caulk and add fresh caulk rather than trying to patch it.
Bus ceilings require minimal preparation for construction compared with floors and walls, but it’s possible to have leaks around roof emergency exits. These leaks can be caused by worn rubber gaskets around the exit hatch or from old caulking around the exit fixture. Remove and replace the old caulking or replace the rubber hatch gaskets to solve this common leaking problem.
School Bus Conversion Step #3: Insulation and Flooring
You’ll get much better energy performance—and therefore will be more comfortable—if you replace the old insulation with new material before buttoning up the walls, ceiling, and floor. The best all-around option is rigid foam insulation board. Almost all rigid insulation board is load-bearing and designed to function under concrete floors, so you can install your wood subfloor right on top of it.
Insulate Your Walls and Floor: Cut each piece of rigid insulation to size and fit it into place inside the wall cavities, then use canned expanding spray foam (such as Great Stuff) to fill in gaps and keep it in place. Most buses have wall cavities roughly 2 inches deep; however, that distance can vary slightly even in the same bus, so it’s safer to install a slightly thinner insulation type, such as 11⁄2-inch-thick foam-board insulation panels. The best all-around option is rigid foam insulation board. Rigid insulation panels can be scored with a utility knife and snapped off to fit.
To insulate the bus floor, measure the full width of the floor from side to side. You’ll run the insulation boards across the bus, perpendicular to the bus sides. If the floor is 90 inches wide and your rigid insulation is 96 inches long, you simply have to score and snap the insulation boards to fit. Apply construction adhesive to the bottom of the insulation boards and if you have anything heavy, such as sandbags, place these on top of the insulation boards to hold them down while the glue dries. Use seal tape to cover the cracks between the individual boards.
Installing the Subfloor and Finish Flooring: The best material for a bus subfloor is sanded plywood. Plywood subflooring should be at least 1⁄2-inch thick, but if you have the budget and headroom, 5⁄8-inch or 3⁄4-inch tongue-and-groove plywood subflooring is ideal because the pieces lock together so there’s no movement along the panels’ edges. You will trim the subfloor panels to fit the width of the bus, and it’s all right to cut them a little short to make it easier to drop them into place on the floor. To secure the subfloor to the bus, I recommend using self-tapping, wood-to-metal screws (about 10 per panel) to go through the subfloor and insulation and into the bus’s metal floor.
Finish flooring is the final layer you will walk on. Vinyl click-together, imitation-wood flooring works wonderfully for skoolies because it is extremely durable, relatively thin, and easy to install with great results. Carpet, laminate, or engineered hardwood can also be laid right over the subfloor, and each is relatively easy to install.
School Bus Conversion Step #4: Design
First, take exact measurements of your bus’s interior, then make a scaled drawing of it. Start with the following measurements:
• Distance between the walls
• Distance from the back of the driver’s seat to the back of the bus
• Distance behind and in front of the wheel humps, from both ends of the bus
• Space between the wheel humps, from side to side
• Height from the middle (high point) of the ceiling to the floor
Create a scaled drawing on a piece of poster board or large sheet of paper. And then mock up the layout by using painter’s tape or chalk to map it out on the empty bus floor. When you walk around on the taped layer, if you feel something is too tight or if you find inefficiencies in how things are positioned, you can move the tape to test alternatives.
Begin building your layout by prioritizing the things you value most for your skoolie conversion. Do you want a full-size bed, or would you rather allow more space for the kitchen or bathroom? What kind of furniture or built-ins would you like? What’s your ideal kitchen layout?
Bed: Do you need a queen-size bed, or are you okay with a double? A queen mattress is approximately five feet wide and 6.5 feet long, but a double mattress is 4.5 feet wide and just over six feet long. Half a foot of width could make or break your layout plans—or sleeping comfort. Also, custom sizes of foam mattresses can be ordered online, or foam mattresses can be trimmed to whatever size you desire.
Kitchen: Think compact: A single sink saves counter space over a double sink, and overhead shelving can act as storage for food, cups, and plates. You’ll also need to fit the refrigerator or cooler, stove, and microwave into the design. If you plan to do a lot of grilling outside your bus, you might want to locate your indoor kitchen close to the bus entrance. Most recreational vehicles, campers, and tiny homes have kitchen counters no longer than five feet, not counting space for a small oven. A good tip is to utilize a standard bathroom vanity base in place of conventional kitchen base cabinets.
Storage: You’ll be surprised at how much stuff you have to put in your skoolie. Storage space under the bed is excellent for clothing containers or drawers, shoes, extra water jugs, and more. One way to arrange underbed storage is to divide it into front and rear sections, with the front being accessible from inside the bus and the rear being accessible from the rear emergency exit door.
You can store items under sofas. You can even remove the sofa’s feet and place the sofa frame above a framed-in storage box or a set of drawers similar to those found on a captain’s bed.
Shelving is an excellent use of the space over windows and around the perimeter of the bus where you won’t be walking. It’s critical that you add a small ledge, at least two inches tall, along the front edge of the shelf to keep items from falling when the bus is moving. (Similarly, it is wise to use small hook-and-eye latches to keep drawers from opening while you’re driving.)
Keep Cozy: A wood stove is an excellent way to stay warm and complete your conversion. Install it close to the center of the bus, from front to back, and far enough off the wall to allow the chimney pipe to go through the ceiling.
Adapted from Skoolie! 2019 by Will Sutherland. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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