The idea for this adventure mobile did not come to us, rather it came to our 13 year old daughter in a flurry of excitement: "I know what I want for Christmas!!!". When she proudly declared, "a bus", we had the typical parent reaction and laughed it off. We may have even laughed at her. Dejected, we ask why she would want a bus. The response was powerful: "I just wanted to deck it out and go on family adventures."
She vanished off to bed and we were left staring at each other.
"You realize your 13 year old daughter just asked for FAMILY TIME for Christmas‽"
It became clear we were buying a bus. Teaching our kids the value of running with a crazy idea was important to us, as well as an opportunity to encourage their individual pursuits.
(My inner parent feels the need to clarify...the bus was not a Christmas gift, but rather appeared shortly after New Years. Truly, a bus is a nutty gift idea...what next year, a plane?! The kids didn't seem to notice a scaled down Christmas as a result.)
This Instructable lays out the steps we took and hurdles we faced. It's worth mentioning we are in Canada and requirements for this kind of thing vary by state and province. Discrepancies we discovered will be pointed out, but do your own research before you hit Buy Now. For the most part, the community over at Skoolie.net likely has your region covered in the discussion forums. It's a great research venue for regional queries.
We were aiming for a safari vehicle feel, with windows in all directions. We consider this one of the huge benefits of converting a bus to an RV, over buying an RV. The other unexpected benefit was the crash ratings on buses. They are more durably built, intended for commercial passengers. Buying a school bus increases that safety, but at the cost of warmth and ride comfort.
Step 1: Buy a Bus
Finding a bus to purchase was pretty simple. We relied on local online classifieds, and found a political campaign bus. These range in price from $2-10k, as they are discarded from service companies after a handful of years. Auto auctions are other sources to consider.
You want to make sure it has a few things in place:
- it is registered in running order.
Being a commercial vehicle means it had to pass inspections routinely. If it is not in running order on paper, then you will have to jump those hurdles first. Those in the $2k range tended not to qualify as running order.
- it does not have wheelchair access.
A lift makes the vehicle more expensive and leaves you dealing with equipment, bulk, and floor irregularities.
- overhead storage.
You will be using every last inch of floor space, so having the overhead racks was essential.
- it was manufactured in your home country.
Import requirements will be a challenge as you will need to comply with your automobile manufacturing requirements.
The bus in these instructions began as a 24 seat bus, with a rear door and windows across the back. Some are longer with storage units across the back, and no rear exit door. This would be useful to add an additional bathroom and storage.
Step 2: Get It Home, or to Your Shop
Hard to imagine this needs a step of its own but this hurdle needs to be detailed. Getting the bus home was our first challenge, and it was all a steep learning curve.
The goal is to get a temporary license plate, temporary insurance, and a qualified driver.
You can not get a temporary plate without insurance.
The vehicle will come registered commercial, as you can not privately own a bus as a personal vehicle.
In order to drive a bus you need a commercial drivers license.
So, plates, insurance, license...
Commercial insurance is not temporary. It is sold in 1 year increments without an option to cancel with a refund. The quote was $5000+.
The option left is to get the vehicle delivered as a negotiation of the purchase. Or towed, but you will need to find a larger towing company capable of transporting a bus. Most we called did not offer this service.
Step 3: Find the Requirements to Convert the Title to an RV
With the vehicle home, the next step is to research the requirements for an RV bus conversion. You will need to register the bus as an RV for the following reasons:
- you can drive it with a regular G license
- you can afford insurance ($500 compared to $5000)
- you don't need to do yearly inspections, keep records, nor pull into weigh stations
The requirements for an RV title vary by location. In our case we had to meet 4 of the following components, and get seating down to 10 including the driver.
Cooking facilities, a refrigerator or an ice box, a self-contained toilet, a heating or air conditioning system, an independent electrical power supply or an independent gas supply or a potable water supply system with faucet and sink.
All it took was a written statement outlining the alterations to the transportation ministry and a small charge. The title was seamlessly changed to an RV. To get plates, we also needed a safety (within 30 days of registering) and an emissions test (within the year).
Step 4: Design Your Exterior
In our case, the bus was plastered with political campaign material. This needed to be removed. Vinyl graphics are best removed in summer and with heat guns. We were in winter, in our driveway, with blow dryers. Doable, but could have been easier.
With the exterior cleaned up, we shopped on Fiverr for an artist who matched our feel and registered a gig to create a giant squid running the length of the bus. We sent a picture of the bus and in a few days, he sent back a mock up jpg and finalized with a vector file.
We asked around and found a local vinyl graphics company to create our image. This arrived on giant peel n stick rolls, and was best applied in 21•C temperatures. We did wait for summer to take on the install.
We did have scrap vinyl and decided to create a name banner for the front. The instructable for that can be found HERE
Step 5: Remove the Seats
Do not discard the seats, but unbolt them from the underside of the bus. The seats that are in the best shape will be reinstalled. We kept one left mount and one right mount in storage as backup parts for future. The metal bases were in need of rust removal, so we sand blasted them and repainted them in a high gloss black.
Step 6: Gut the Bus
This step is one of those lessons learned as hind sight. Gut it all at once, not just in manageable projects and steps. Make one big mess and clean out an empty bus instead of mess, clean, repeat...often.
With the seats removed, take out any damaged or ugly panels. These buses are notorious for water damage. Remove the headliner and scrape or sand off the glue residue. We had a large box at the front holding the tube TV that needed to be reworked, so it came out and went in the makerspace to be reconstructed.
Step 7: Complete the Headliner
In order to remove the existing headliner, pry back the black rubber gasket along the track of the headliner. This will expose the screws to remove the tracks. With these down, the edges of the headliner are revealed and it can be easily peeled off. Remove the casing around the emergency hatch as well, as it is over the headliner. Glue residue will remain on the ceiling and will need to be removed. We put on masks and sanded it off.
There were some questions about the best way to install new headliner, from industry glues to over the counter 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. There were complaints online about the spray glue letting loose over time, however we started noticing these complaints were coming from hot regions, like Arizona. People in colder climates seemed to have success with the 3M product, and with that we decided to use the spray adhesive over the industry glues. Besides, we didn’t have the spray glue equipment and would also need to order the product specially through the custom auto upholstery shop.
The headliner was installed in 2 pieces, to avoid having to measure precisely around the emergency hatch. The seam lands along the thin edges of headliner beside the hatch.
Using just the bolt of cotton fabric, we cut it roughly to length, laid it out on the ground behind the bus and sprayed vigorously with the 3M adhesive spray. We walked it in through the back door and smoothed it in place. The tracks and gaskets were put back in place.
Step 8: Clean the Bus
One big clean is key. Get your kids involved. Often and lots. What has come of this project is the family's self pride in this DIT (do it together) project. The kids loved getting a responsibility and now know the nooks and crannies that collect dust. :)
During your cleaning take off all the light covers and scrub them clean. Along with replacing the bulbs, this will considerably brighten your living space. The newer LED’s provide whiter light, consume less battery power, and have increased longevity. We purchased ours on eBay. Look for bulbs with LEDs on multiple facets of the bulb itself. Consider replacing the interior and exterior bulbs, to improve the brightness of them all.
With the bus gutted, you will want to clean and paint the floor heaters that can’t be removed. Mask the areas around them and apply several coats of high gloss paint designed for metals. If you removed other parts from the heaters, paint those as well.
The flooring installer will address the best way to lay flooring around and under the existing heaters.
Step 9: Install the Flooring
We wanted to have a Retro living room feel and wanted to install carpet in a section. We found a carpet remnant with a great pattern and planned to make that fit, covering the rest with checkered vinyl flooring.
This could have been another DIT project, but for $100 we found an installer willing to come to our house, provide the right glues and installation expertise, over ridges and transitions. In a few hours we had flooring. Keep in mind in the cold, the glue will take a long time to cure. A very long time.
The checkered vinyl was somewhat difficult to find. In US this is affordable online (checkeredfloor.com), but in Canada it took some effort to find a local supplier of this product.
It's worth noting that we went directly over the existing floor. Some people build insulated subfloors. This would reduce noise and increase warmth in winter...a great idea. One product that intrigued us was remnants of commercial gym flooring, as they are thick and insulated on arrival. Once again, these are more easily sourced outside of our region.
Step 10: Find the Futons
We wanted to keep with the safari feel and build everything below the window height. That excluded bunk beds. We decided on 3 futons, capable of sleeping 6. The two at the rear were measured to fit flush as a compete sleeping platform when flat. This accommodates 4 kids in sleeping bags. The one at the front is for the adults.
Again we wanted to keep with the retro living room feel. We found a local supplier of Klik Klak futons. These are a great price point, are fun looking, and click in unique configurations. The rear red futons lay flat for sleeping or click up as loungers one way, and couches the other.
Start by measuring your interior bus width, up about a foot from the floor of the bus. Shop the futons with that measurement in mind. You will want it to be an ideal fit.
The front futon isn't as significant since there is plenty of room to extend it down. We wanted to keep a small aisle at night in case of emergency.
Step 11: Make Slip Covers for the Seats
After trying several options to recover the dated seats, it was easiest to make slip covers for the seat backs, and separate ones for the seat.
The fabric for the bus was purchased off the clearance rack from Joann's, on a 50% off day. I found two coordinating retro fabrics, and then purchased a large amount of matching grey upholstery fabric, in a range of greys. Next time I would buy twice that amount of grey up front, as we used a lot.
The slip covers were created with a mix of these fabrics. I cut a pattern from the seat itself and through trial and error restitched them until puckers were gone and they were a perfect fit. The ends of the slip covers tuck into the bottom of the seat back. Once I had my pattern, I cut out all 8 and assembled them.
Step 12: Install the Electrical System
One of the requirements for an RV is to have an independent electrical system. This necessitated rechargeable batteries, an electrical panel, inverter, a charge solenoid, and exterior hook up.
Two 6 volt golf cart batteries are installed in series to supply 12 volts. These batteries are connected to the main vehicle battery through a charge solenoid. This allows the batteries to recharge while the engine is running. They are housed in a battery box, secured to the floor behind the driver's seat.
The electrical panel contains the circuit breakers and fuses necessary to protect the wiring and equipment.
The inverter charger has 2 functions. While plugged into shore power, the inverter charger can recharge the batteries. The main function is to convert the 12volts DC to 120 volt AC, which allows you to run standard household electronics.
Exterior Hook Up
A 30 amp exterior outlet designed for RVs was installed to the bus exterior to provide 120 volts AC while parked in serviced camp sites. In this way, the bus can be powered by shore power, or by the batteries.
Outlets are installed throughout the bus to provide power for charging gadgets and running electronics.
We then installed a tv on a swivel bracket, with the Wii installed, for travel entertainment for the kids.
Step 13: Reupholster and Reinstall the Panels
This is a step with a huge impact, that is remarkably simple. There are various panels in the bus that cover and conceal the frame and electrical of the bus. They have caps over the screws, and are just screwed in place. The bus panels are simply a thin plywood, with fabric stretched over it, and stapled along the back. To replace the fabric, simply remove the existing fabric, use that scrap as a template to cut new fabric, and staple it in place.
In one case, we had an empty space where an older model tube TV was installed. We created a box to fit that space and upholstered it, installing it for storage space.
Step 14: Reupholster the Overhead Racks
We have mentioned reupholstering the panels, however the overhead racks deserve mention on their own. They not only require multiple people to remove them, but are also connected with electrical components for the lights over the seating.
You will have to strip the existing fabric off, however leave on the foam glued to the metal. Using the 3M Super 77 spray adhesive, recover the racks with your fabric selection. Cut out the holes for the lighting units and put the lights back in place.
Reinstall the units, and reconnect the electrical wires.
Step 15: Put the Futons in and Plan Where the Seats Will Go
Our original plan was to have all the seats on one side, but the measurement wasn't ideal. We shifted one across the aisle and gained more space in the rear since the seats are offset across the aisle. It also created much more flow to the bus interior.
Install the seats. These go back in the same places they were removed from, using the existing bases and holes. We tried putting one rear-facing, however in the end it worked best to have 3 sets on one side, and the 4th across the aisle on the other side.
Set the futons in place.
Step 16: Install the Table
You will want to find a small table to create a galley space for sitting. We had on hand a vintage yellow melamine table, with a retro pattern. We removed the legs and purchased an RV table bracket. One end of the base attached to the underside of the table, while the other end insets into the floor. These are connected with a tube, creating a single stand for the table. Without a retro table on hand, similar can be accomplished with Ikea’s coloured table tops.
Step 17: Build and Install the Kitchen Unit
We were fortunate enough to have a reuse centre local to us, to source a base for our kitchen. We removed the legs and cleaned up around the bottom trim by replacing the wood veneer with silver heat duct tape, to coordinate with the edging of the tabletop. The top of the cabinet was removed and replaced with a yellow Ikea counter sourced from the Clearance room at Ikea. After it was cut to size, the remnant was used to build the backsplash, keeping in mind the existing window height.
A hole was cut in the table to inset a sink, as well as a hole to inset a pump faucet. On the remaining countertop space, a single burner is mounted for our cook surface. Inside the cabinet is a grey water bag to drain the sink, and a fresh water container to pump into the sink. The remaining space holds a wash bin for dishes, which is packed with kitchen gear, and a waffle iron, which Pinterest taught us is the ideal cooking tool while on the road.
The entire unit was mounted onto the wheel well from underneath the bus, keeping the view clear out the windows.
Sitting on the floor in front of the kitchen is an electric cooler unit, capable of cooling or heating. With this installed, we met the requirements for a refrigerator or an ice box.
Step 18: Consider Supplemental Heaters and AC
While we were meeting nearly every requirement of an RV, and didn’t NEED heat and AC, we also recognized the need for alternates. With the bus parked and turned off, it quickly becomes hot in summer and freezing in winter. These have been installed as plug in units. The stand alone room heaters serve to keep the bus warm if needed, and the AC allows us to sleep out in hot summer nights. The portable AC is a room model AC, vented out the small sliding window. These plug into the supplemental electrical system, running off the batteries.
Step 19: Curtains, Blinds, Under Storage Drawers, Dividers
Curtains seem like a luxury until you are parked at night to sleep and it becomes clear that you need a way to block off the vast open windows.
The rear windows were covered with blinds. We made these match the bus by covering them with fabric.
The blinds were discards from the reuse centre and we disassembled them to fit. The blind material was cut from the tube and the mechanics from one end of the tube was removed to cut the tube to length. This was replaced in the new smaller tube.
The blind material was covered with 3M adhesive spray (cover your work area well for overspray), and the fabric was smoothed over the adhesive. The blind was then trimmed to the new size with a roller cutter and straight edge used for fabric quilting. The original bottom edge of the blind was cut off and a new one stitched in place using the fabric covered blind material. The original plastic pull was then inserted into the new pocket.
With this all complete, the blind was stapled onto the original tube, making sure to install it with the correct rotation of the tube so that the fabric was facing outwards.
Curtains along the windows need to be pulled tight when in use, so we made a simple long fabric panel to put in place, instead of gathered and pleated curtains. A wire was installed the length of the windows. The key to installing this was removing the uppermost screws from the window panels, and replacing them with eyebolts. The first and last eyebolts remain closed and serve as the anchor points for the tight wire. The other eyebolts were pried open to allow the wire to rest in the hook when the curtains are fully extended or retracted.
Ikea Riktig clips were installed on the wire, to clip the curtain panel in place. Two were anchored on the end, closed eye bolts to pull the curtain tight and keep it in place.
After the windows are covered, the only remaining area visible from the exterior is the windshield. We used a photography backdrop to create a large divider. This already had grommets, was super wide and only needed to be hemmed to fit. The same cable used on the curtains was installed across the front of the bus, using the same eyebolts. To raise this higher, eyebolts were installed on the ceiling and opened to hold the divider up. The cable was installed with bungee on both ends to allow this to extend up. The ends of the bungee were left as hooks to hook the cable in place, and remove it for times when the bus is in use.
A second system similar to this was installed part way down the bus to create a divider between the kids sleeping area and the rest of the bus.
Using discarded drawers from a dresser, we were able to create storage under the futons for the sleeping bags. Some of the coordinating fabric was used to cover the drawer fronts, as well as scrap flooring to line them.
Step 20: Find Vintage Suitcases
At first it is assumed that our suitcases were added to accompany the retro look and feel of the bus, but they are functional and essential. Modern suitcases are not designed with the limited height of the racks in mind. Even carry-on luggage dimensions are too large.
Sourcing the suitcases was not difficult, and we continue to purchase them as we find them. The local reuse centre was one source, as well as trendy vintage shops. We purchased 2 Train Cases as well; one to hold all our toiletries and avoid having 6 separate toiletries bags; and a second to hold emergency medical components like a First Aid kit, flashlight and thermometer. These fit under the seats.
You will want to find hard cases, as the soft cases aren’t as easy to work with. Make sure the latches are simple and work consistently. Several of the cases are permanently packed with entertainment for the kids (art supplies, games, etc.), kitchen needs (pots, cutting board, etc.) and a small one for remote potty needs. You will want to have at least one case for each family member to pack clothes in for travel.
Step 21: The Other Little Bits
We get a lot of questions about the bus. The first is always, "Is it good on gas?", (the answer is no!), followed by "Do you need to wear seat belts?"
As a bus, it has been designed without seat belt requirements, HOWEVER since it is now a registered RV, it will require seat belts. These can be ordered from an auto supply store and installed as a retrofit. Have fun with the colour options, and order some extra belts to buckle down the futons, to the pre-existing seat rail.
You will want to customize things to meet your tastes. We replaced the stereo and speakers, fixed the doors, sealed the windows, and caulked all the seams. Roof leaks are typical in older buses and you will find RV supply stores carry a wide range of caulks.
The next addition has been inflatable tentacles blowing out the emergency hatch. While not essential, our ride is about fun and the unexpected. Instructable to follow soon!
Step 22: Review Your Requirements and Set Off!
Review the requirements for an RV and file the paperwork with the Ministry of Transportation. In our case, we needed to submit a statement of the changes made to qualify as an RV, a safety certificate, and emissions test.
We managed to meet almost all the requirements apart from the toilet unit. We didn't want to plumb in a potty so instead tucked a self contained Marine Potty unit under the seat. We are on the lookout for a self contained potty measuring 10.5" high, or less, in order to fully have it stowed under the seat.
Now gas up and go have fun! Consider it all a work in progress and keep adding on ideas!
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