The beauty of a skoolie conversion is that no two have to be the same; they’re a reflection of the owner and each bus takes on a personality of its own. Regardless, though, each skoolie will have a variety of projects that need to be tackled first to prep for the true fun part which is designing the inside and beautifying the outside! In every build there will always be a few moments where it feels like you’ve taken on too much, but take heart in the fact that so many folks have pushed through the struggles and you will, too. While it’s the less glamorous portion of skoolie life, this article will take you through some of the first projects you’ll need to accomplish to get that new (to you) bus ready to adventure!
1. Verify the skoolie is safe to drive
We included this in the beginning because many skoolie conversions, while able to be driven from point A to point B, won’t quite be ready for actual travel until you put some TLC into them. There could be a laundry list of issues keeping the vehicle from being genuinely safe to drive; some reasons are obviously more egregious than others. However, hopefully you’ve checked off some of the more pertinent issues before actually purchasing the bus (such as the ones listed on our quick checklist). If not, fear not! Here are the actual roadworthy aspects of the bus you’ll want to take care of first.
- Keep an eye on your coolant and other fluids. It’s often a good idea to lay a big tarp up under the front of the bus for a couple of days to just see if any liquids appear that you may not otherwise notice.
- Make sure all of your (necessary) lights work. This typically means your headlights/brights, running lights, tail lights, blinkers, and brake lights. No need to worry about the flashers up top. This was our own endeavor dealing with our own brake lights!
- Check your tires periodically for dry rot or flattening. While this typically occurs over time it’s always a good idea to either get covers for your tires or keep them moist with tire shine (or both).
- Verify the various joints around your brakes, axles, and other locations are greased. Our bus, like many others, have quite a few locations that need to be greased periodically and chances are the one you purchase hasn’t had that sort of maintenance in quite some time unless it came directly from a school district. Verify the locations on your bus (brakes, axles, etc) and grab you a nice tube (or few) of all-purpose grease, insert the end into the nipple for the grease point, and squeeze until you see grease emerging from the junction.
- Drain your air brakes. This shouldn’t happen a ton unless you’re driving it, but just be aware that air brakes need to be drained. Condensation will build up inside them and that water has to be removed. After the drive home, open up the valves to release any water and just remember to do this periodically after trips.
- Check your brakes, including the all-important slack-adjustors. Newer buses will have automatic slack adjustors, but older ones will require you to periodically tighten these down, especially if you’re driving in very hilly or mountainous areas. If you have manual ones, grab a wrench and torque down on the slack adjustor for each break as hard as you can, and then turn it back 1/4 turn. Checking these is vital to keep your brake pads actually reaching the portion of the wheel they’re supposed to be touching when you brake, otherwise you’re in for a fun roll down the hill with no brakes!
- Check your exhaust system for leaks. Just make sure there are no holes in your muffler or exhaust pipes, indicated either by the obvious hole or a clear spot where liquid has been leaking. Carbon monoxide is a by-product in exhaust and it’s lighter than air i.e. it floats. The last thing you want is for it to be leaking up into the void under the bus where it has nowhere to go but up: directly into your soon-to-be living area.
- You probably determined this around when you bought the bus, but take a look at your gauges and make sure they work correctly. While you likely won’t be speeding in a bus, it’s always important to know things like coolant temperature and air brake pressure!
While this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, it goes a long way to making sure your skoolie conversion is not only roadworthy, but genuinely safe for both your family and others on the road.
2. Remove school decals so the skoolie can be registered
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but getting your bus registered as an RV will be not only difficult if it still displays the word “school” anywhere, but it may actually be illegal in some places. It’s best to just clear off that word from the front, sides, and back, and this can be done in a few different ways!
Check out our instructional YouTube video here on how we performed this task with a heat tool and scraper, but others have success with a rubber wheel, oscillating multitool, or old fashioned sander. The whole step could potentially be combined with the later step of prepping the bus for paint, but many people will prefer to get the decals off to go ahead and get it registered and then wait until later for the labor-intensive paint process. No matter what, a skoolie conversion is typically going to have to be void of that dreaded “school” word, and some helpful tools combined with elbow grease go a long way!
3. Rip up seats and floor and check for rust
The floor itself is going to be a multi-day project, no matter how you look at it. But it’s best to be taken in small chunks, which is why we’re giving you this section in order of how to accomplish such a daunting task! We also split this up with number 5 in this list, because some people may not want to go further than removing the rubber floor, and step 5 explains how to continue that process to prep the floor to add rust inhibitor. Regardless, you’ll definitely want to at least get to the end of this section for your floors, since it’s the only way you’ll verify how much rust you’re contending with. Follow along here, and be sure to check out our Youtube video on how we removed the rubber floor and other portions of our own skoolie conversion!
While we were lucky enough to find a bus that already had the seats removed, we still want to make sure you know the process! There are a couple of ways to go about this, one just sucks slightly less than the other (this sentiment is common in the beginning stages of a bus conversion). The more thorough manner consists of removing the nuts and bolts from each seat and pulling them out from where they’re attached to the floor. The problem that often arises here is that the nut on the underside of the bus needs to be held in place, usually by someone with a pair of pliers or a wrench, while someone in the bus physically removes the bolt with a socket wrench. It creates a very long time for someone laying in weird positions on the ground!
The second method involves an angle grinder and cutting wheel. You guessed it: get down even with the floor and start cutting through the legs of each seat. You can cut through the head of the bolt which will then allow each nut and bolt to fall through the floor and down below. It may be a good idea to have a big tarp under the area you’re cutting to make it easy to remove all of the fallen metal, since the last thing you want is to go to move the bus and suddenly run over one of many sharply cut bolts.
Once you have the seats out, then it’s time to remove the rubber flooring that covers the inside. This was a fairly easy process for us. You can typically take a screwdriver with a Phillips head and work your way down a line of screws holding the rubber mat to the metal floor. You’re bound to come across quite a few that are stripped, but don’t labor over those, you’ll get your revenge later. If you can get the majority of them, the floor should then be fairly simply to rip up.
Take a crowbar, find a good seam, hammer the bar just under the rubber mat, and pull the rubber up enough to where you can then grab hold and simply pull the mat up. You may have to do a few sections since the old rubber likes to rip in random spots, but it typically comes up in large sections that you’ll just need to roll up.
It’s worth noting here that the floor will have holes in it. You can either cover these or not, that’s entirely up to you. In our case, we’re definitely covering the ones near the wheel wells and along the sides of the bus, but we’re not as concerned about the middle ones. We obviously don’t want water splashing up into the holes, but we also want any water accidents on the inside to have a place to go if, say, a pipe burst. You can cover or fill the holes with aluminum tape, JB Weld, or any variety of good automotive grade caulk.
4. Remove ceiling and top wall panels and insulation
Rivets suck. There is no “simple” way that we know of to truly make this process of a skoolie conversion easier, so we’ll give you the options we utilized (and again, if you like visuals, check out our video on the subject!). First, you need to determine if you’re going to be removing the ceiling and wall panels or not. Some folks keep them up and don’t stress about adding insulation or different walls. While it would cut out a ton of work and some people do it with no issues, just remember that the only way to verify leaks and mold is by removing these panels.
The caveat here is if you’re lucky enough to find a potential skoolie with screws instead of rivets holding the panels. If so, it would probably be worth just taking a half day’s work to remove the panels and check even if you put them back up.
For those who are going to be removing the panels containing rivets, however, here is how we accomplished this gargantuan task.
A few tools you’ll want to gather in advance (some of which you may have already used if you’re following this guide) are a good crowbar, a large hammer, a nail set/awl, an angle grinder with a cutting wheel, an air compressor, and an air hammer/chisel. You may not want to go the route of the air hammer, but it’ll save a ton of time.
The main concept here is to go through and center punch each rivet on the head to knock the head loose. Then you can either try and knock each head clean off, or you pry beneath the panel and pop each one completely off of the sheet metal. A hammer and crowbar are helpful for the very stubborn ones, and we did have success removing an entire panel this way; however, the true secret lies in the use of an air hammer.
A sufficient air hammer can be bought from Harbor Freight for less than $20, but you’ll also need a good air compressor that can keep up with its use. With the air hammer, make sure you have a good chisel tip and a punch tip, and it can make every portion of this process much quicker. Essentially, you’ll take the punch tip (the one that looks like a spike) and it makes very quick work of punching the head out of each rivet. In fact, we could punch an entire set of rivets on the wall from front to back in about 5 minutes. Once the heads are all punched, you have two options.
Either use the chisel head to force the heads off of each rivet, or use the same head to get in behind each panel and then pry the panel off which also pops the rivets out. The former method may be easier for someone with a very powerful air hammer, while most any hammer can get in behind and pop the panels out. No matter what, this makes the entire process much less labor intensive than try to must each rivet off with a crowbar and hammer.
If you’re wondering why I mentioned the angle grinder, some rivets simply need some extra persuasion. If you can access the back side of the rivet, cut straight through it; if not, cut a cross or plus sign into the head of the rivet which should make it pop much easier.
Once the panels are removed it’s a simple matter of getting rid of the insulation. After such a hardcore process, grabbing hold of some old insulation and throwing it out the door is rather rewarding!
5. Prep the skoolie floor for finishing
Finally, you wind up at the point where you need to prep the metal floor to get ready for the style of living floor you’ll eventually install. Prayerfully, the floor pan in your skoolie conversion won’t have a lot of rust, but the steps included here cover you regardless. You can utilize an electric (not battery) drill or an angle grinder, both installed with some form of wire brush (you can also use a sander or sand blaster, if you really want to go that route). Work your way from one end of the bus to the other, essentially kicking up the old dirt and glue and giving the metal a good finish to then later add rust preventative and paint, if you so desire. Make sure to give some extra love to any spots that have significant rust, verifying you’ve removed all rust chips.
Once the floor is prepped via the wire brush or other cleaning method, it’s time to “etch” the metal. Depending on the type of finish you’re putting on the floor, this step can change a bit. The rule of thumb we’ve determined is that if you’re using a heavy duty rust converter/inhibitor like POR-15, go with their degreaser, prep, and paint combo. However, that may not be the best choice for some folks as it is relatively expensive.
Our method involved buying some “prep and etch” type acid, but don’t let the word “acid” scare you. This stuff is nothing but phosphoric acid, which is an ingredient in Coca-Cola and many other soft drinks. It helps convert the current rust into an inert material, while also prepping the non-rusty metal to accept the next material in the process. You’ll spread it onto the floor and give it a day or so, then come back and dust/rinse away the film it creates.
At this point, you can then add any of a variety of rust inhibiting paints like certain types of Rustoleum. Make sure to give them time to set, and prepare ahead of time when you can have a decent eye on the upcoming weather if you’re doing this outside and have to worry about your bus leaking!
When these first five projects are accomplished, you’ll be well on your way to building out your new skoolie! While there are inevitably going to be plenty of other projects in the meantime, take pride in knowing you’ve made it through a significant portion of the very tough work required on these builds. Stay tuned for more skoolie articles and be sure to give our YouTube a subscribe, as well!