Three Steps to Beginning a Skoolie Conversion

The new Mayflower is currently being built!

We finally did it!Just a few days ago, we made the leap and dove headfirst into the beginning stages of Skoolie life! While we have so much to update you on, those posts (and Youtube videos) will be coming soon. This post will serve as an introduction to the conversion process and everything you need to know if you’re thinking about the same route, while also serving as a jump-off point into following along on our own journey!

Moments after the first drive from the purchase location

Our particular bus is a 33-foot, 1994 BlueBird TC2000 with the 5.9 Cummins engine/Allison transmission. If all that is foreign to you, just know that one of the main reasons we looked for this particular engine was because of the sheer number of them made, so if there ever is anything wrong with it there are tons of parts and full engines available for good prices. We actually located this one in the mountains of north Georgia for an extremely good price (we ended up paying $3500 total for it). It belonged to a local school system in the mountains and was used until 2017, when it was bought by a river tubing company and used sporadically to ferry tubes from the bottom of the river run back to the top.

We were lucky because of the nature of the previous owner’s job, they had already performed the back-breaking work of removing all of the seats! Typically seat removal can take, depending on how well they’re bolted in, a couple of days to finish, not to mention you then need to find a way to dispose of them. That was a huge time saver for us, but our new version of the Mayflower wasn’t without some minor issues.

The lovely fuse box

Specifically, the gauges on the dash and almost all of the lights were not working. Luckily, the headlights were fine and we had a grand total of one brake light switching on, but we got home safely and squeezed the monster into the backyard to begin work. And this is where we want to share with you our journey as we dive into getting this thing converted. We’ll mix in some Skoolie 101 steps with our own experiences, so hopefully you’ll come out of this with some inspiration and knowledge!

1. Mechanical info

When preparing to purchase a bus as a potential Skoolie conversion, the main aspect to consider is how mechanically sound it is. The last thing you want to do is buy a lemon, or a bus that will end up costing thousands of dollars to just get running properly. Obviously not everyone is a diesel or school bus mechanic but there are a few definite things to check.

  1. Coolant mixing with oil – Check the oil reservoir cap, if the inside is primarily a good, oily black, that’s a good sign. If you see a lot of white mixed in, sometimes described as looking like mayonnaise, that means a lot of oil mixture is happening which is not good.
  2. Do the “cap test” – While you’re at the oil reservoir, sit the oil cap back on top of the reservoir but don’t screw it in. Crank the bus, if the oil cap just sort of vibrates and bounces a little, that’s good. If it shoots off somewhere because of the air coming out, that’s not so good.
  3. Check the tires – A good set of tires for a bus can cost upwards of couple of thousand dollars; not what you want to be spending extra money on. A good set of tires can last for a very long time, though, so two aspects you need to check are the tread depth and dry rot. Only you can determine, based on how much driving you’ll be doing, what tread depth you’re comfortable with. As far as dry rot, I wouldn’t be buying a bus where the tires had any significant amount of cracks in them. It’s just too expensive to replace.
  4. Rust – This is one of the most talked-about topics amongst Skoolie folks. Yes, rust can be removed remediated. But it’s also a long battle if your bus has a ton of rust. Some rust is normal, ours has a bit around the wheel wells but nothing significant. When you’re checking out a bus, however, try and take a peak up under the rubber flooring if possible to see how the base metal floor looks. Also make sure you inspect under the bus looking back up at the floor (and other mechanical pieces) to make sure nothing completely overwhelmed with rust.
  5. Red flag if the bus is running when you get there – The visual indicators for some potential problems can dissipate shortly after the bus is cranked up and starts running. If you show up to see a bus and it’s already running, be wary. It’s worth placing your hand near the hood/radiator area just to make sure it’s not super hot which would indicate it was running before you got there.
  6. Price/length/etc – Only you can make this determination. Our bus is about the smallest we could go for a family of our size, and yes, it will be packed. But we do so many activities outside and have plans to add “living area” outside that we can make a 33-foot work. Also, some national parks won’t let in rigs over 25 or 35-feet, so that’s worth considering as well. In terms of price, it is advisable to settle on a firm price, and have a bit of cash over that for any potential problems that may arise.

2. Demolition

Demolition when remodeling a house is fun. Demolition when trying to convert a skoolie is miserable. There is no way around it. In our case, it’s close to 100 degrees F in Georgia right now, so lots of water and liquids is a must. With that being said, a large fan mixed with pushing the windows down makes it more than tolerable. If you have access to a large garage, you are a blessed person. Regardless, settle in for some hot and dirty work.

  1. Seat removal – Thankfully we didn’t have to perform this step, but we’d done a ton of research in preparation. Essentially you have two options here. The first is to try and crank them out with a socket wrench, which may require someone going under the bus and holding the nut on the other end to keep it from just spinning. The second option is to take an angle grinder or other metal saw and cut them at the base.
  2. Rivets/ceiling/wall removal – The first thing to decide here is whether or not you’re going to remove the factory metal from the wall and ceiling. The main reason to do so is to insulate the living space in a better way than the default, and rather terrible, bus insulation. If not, you can skip most of this, however, it’s still a good idea to learn how to remove rivets. You may also be lucky enough to end up with a bus that holds the roof and walls together with screws, and if that’s the case you are indeed lucky. For the rest of us, however, there are a couple of options here. The first thing you need to do is to punch out the inside of the rivet using either an air hammer or hammer/awl. Once that is done, pick one of the following methods. One is the old fashioned hammer and crowbar method where you literally wedge the crowbar in close to each rivet and yank. The second would be to use an angle grinder to cut into the rivets. A third would be to use a drill to drill out each rivet. Finally, the best (but not foolproof) method is to use an air chisel/air hammer. Depending on the strength of the hammer, you can knock the heads off the rivets or use it similar to the hammer/crowbar method without the muscle pain at the end of the day!
  3. Floor removal and conditioning – The first portion of this is removing the rubber flooring, which shouldn’t be too difficult with a screwdriver and potentially a scraper of some kind. Ours came right up. Then it is a matter of cleaning the floor well and getting most of the glue and heavy rust off, sealing any holes, and then conditioning it with some rust sealant/rust converter. From there you can start adding your floor, whether that includes a full subfloor with insulation or not.

3. Conversion/Determine Your Needs

Once you get past the natural tough work of cutting, scrubbing, hammering, pulling, and all of the incredibly hard stuff, the real fun begins. While we haven’t quite made it this far yet, the mindset needs to be there all the way through so you can envision how you need to layout the inside, while keeping in mind you’ll be needing to add potential shore power, water, and other connections by cutting through the skin. This is also where you need to be thinking about waterproofing the roof and other seams, because the last thing you want is to get all of the internal work done and realize you have to rip something out because it got wet and molded.

Our intention here is to coat the roof (when we’re done) with Henry’s Tropicool, which is not only a very stout waterproofing sealant but also a thermal protector. Many people we’ve talked to who added it to their skoolies have said they noticed a 10-degree difference immediately after it was added. We’ve also already taped out our internal walls, couches, beds, and shower to get an idea of overall room and layout before we start actually building. This step is vital, since it gives you a visual indicator of just how easy it will be to navigate through the tighter spaces.

The beginning stages of a skoolie conversion can be daunting, but they are not only necessary to make sure you wind up with a bus that will serve you for a long time, but also to make sure you don’t have to do extra work later. Embrace the sucky parts of the hard work, however, and keep dreaming about why you’re doing it in the first place. The freedom, benefits, and pride that come from this lifestyle will be well worth it when it’s all said and done! Keep an eye on our blog, Twitter, and Youtube in the near future as we push out more content on our various travels and this wonderful conversion process, and hopefully provide you with some inspiration and know-how along the way!

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