School Bus Conversion Resources

School Bus Conversion Resources (
-   Short-Bus Conversion Projects (
-   -   Li'l Trickster: six-window adventure bus for six people (

desertfather 10-11-2018 02:03 PM

Li'l Trickster: six-window adventure bus for six people
Hi everyone -- starting the long-overdue thread for a bus I posted about awhile back. Here's the thread where I first introduced myself and the bus:

If you don't feel like reading the stuff back there, here's the basic info: It's a six-window 1990 Wayne Lifeguard/International 3700. It has lived all its life in upstate NY, first as a school bus, then as the dive rescue bus for a volunteer fire department, and now as an adventure rig for me, my wife, and our four kids. I offered the fire department half of what they were asking, and had the thing bought and titled as a home-on-wheels (basically an RV in NY) for under $2000.

I've done a fair amount with it since I first posted. I don't know if this can be called a "build thread," since a fair amount of it is review. But we can start here, how the bus first looked when I got it last spring:

desertfather 10-11-2018 02:38 PM

This all started in March 2018. When I first test-drove the bus, it had six seats up front, and cabinets in the back for dive gear. There was a lot I didn't know about buying buses, and I'd only just started reading things here. Bringing the kids along for the test drive was probably a mistake, because they fell in love with it immediately, and made it pretty much impossible for me to walk away.

The fire department guys were really cool and agreed to take out the scuba gear cabinets, and to remove the big emergency lights up top. That was all taken care of when I went back to pick it up, and I had no problems on the hour-long drive home.

After getting it home, I didn't waste time. The seat bolts were too rusty to spin with wrenches, so I just used a reciprocating saw to cut the legs off the seats so I could clear out the interior.

Then I used a grinder to cut the heads off the bolts, but it took forever -- it was more like cutting the top 3/4 of each bolt head off, because the metal plates on the bottom of each seat leg had sort of a rim around them, and I couldn't get the grinder to cut the heads off flush. So I had to remove as much bolt metal as possible, and then pry up the plates with a crowbar and pop the remaining pieces of the bolt heads off. It worked, though. You can see some of the plates still attached in this photo:

desertfather 10-11-2018 02:57 PM

You know what I wish? I wish I'd found a way to get some of the seats out intact, because I think I could have used them. Or at the very least, I could have used some of the raw materials, like the high-density foam inside, for upholstery on furniture I'd build later. And since this is NY, all the seats had lap belts attached, and I totally could have taken those off for later use. But as it was, I made a big pile of seats at the end of my driveway, threw them on the Craigslist free page, and they were gone within a couple of hours.

Oh well. But for people who aren't building a bus to live in, and want to do a camping/adventure rig on a budget, my advice would be not to throw anything away. OK, you might not want to just use a bus seat, because maybe you don't like the look of bus seats. But you might want to keep the old frames of the seats, in case you want to modify them later and bolt them back down to the floor as dinette seats, side-facing benches, whatever. I'm thinking now that there were all kinds of things I could have done with them.

Meanwhile, I kept soldiering on. I tore out the rubber floor, pried up all the aluminum trim, and got down to the wood underneath. Before making the decision about whether to tear out the floor or not and get it all down to bare metal, I went ahead and got a can of oil-based paint and made the interior white.

Part of the reason I started painting the interior was because, first, it was too cold in April in upstate NY to start painting the exterior. But I needed to make some visible headway. My wife was being super-cool about the whole thing, but the bus was taking up valuable driveway space, and the neighbors were wondering what was going on, and people in the community were driving by our house and asking questions. Even my parents were like, I don't know, man, who buys a bus? I was dealing with some hardcore skepticism. I felt like Noah, with the ark. So I painted the inside and made it look like maybe it could eventually become something, and texted people the photos to try to get them to catch the vision.

I don't know if it worked, but it boosted my morale to see the interior looking cleaner and brighter. It gave my wife and kids the energy, too, to imagine this thing as something more than just a metal box.

desertfather 10-11-2018 03:16 PM

Then I had this whole series of unfortunate events. Amazingly, I had no trouble at all with insurance; I called my State Farm agent on the day I picked up the bus, and by the time I was driving it home, they'd emailed me the documents I needed in case I got stopped by cops. But where I ran into trouble was title and inspection.

I went to get the bus registered at the DMV, and didn't even think about the details of the title. I described it in the other thread, I think, but in a nutshell, the fire department that sold me the bus had gotten it from a school district. When they got it from the school district, they never changed the title over. So I ended up with the title looking like it went from the school district to me, and I had a bill of sale showing it going from the fire department to me. In other words, the bill of sale didn't match the title.

The FD had given me a bunch of documents with the bus, including the minutes of the school district meeting in which the bus had been donated to the fire department. If anyone at the DMV had cared about that, they could have seen how the whole thing worked, but the clerks just need everything to match, you know? So I went home with no title, and had to let the FD know about the problem so they could start clearing up the issue.

Meanwhile, I went to get the bus inspected, because I thought I might as well knock that out. I took it to an International dealership because I figured they'd have whatever parts I needed. The bus had passed inspection in 2016, but hadn't been on the road much since then, so I didn't know what to expect, even though the FD guys said everything was in working order.

Long story short, the International dealership guys totally tried to hose me. Technically, the only things that didn't pass inspection were the brake rotors, which were corroded. But the estimate they gave me for the work necessary to pass inspection included replacement of the entire brake system. All in all, it added up to nearly $7000, mostly in expensive labor and brand-new International parts shipped from the factory.

At that point, I was thinking, OK, this thing isn't even titled in my name, and maybe I need to just go back to the FD and ask for my money back. But while the title issue was still being resolved, I asked around locally where I could get a second opinion, and my buddy recommended a guy who fixed landscaping trucks.

It took awhile, but he took a look at it and said, yeah, the rotors had some light corrosion on them, but he didn't think they even needed to be resurfaced. He did recommend replacing the calipers, doing general PM stuff, changing the oil, etc., to the tune of a few hundred bucks, inspection included.

When the clean title finally came back from the FD, I just had to get a weight slip so the DMV could title it as a house-on-wheels or whatever, which is what they call RVs in NY. I just described it from the get-go as a school bus that had been converted into an RV, even though at that point it was still basically an empty box with a driver's seat.

So at this point in the story, it's June, and I've done very little on the bus. I have a clean title, and it's registered with plates, and it has passed inspection. And I have two days to get it ready for a campout that I signed up for forever ago.

magnakansas 10-11-2018 03:23 PM

that bus...
I like your bus. I might have an idea for seats, go to a ford dealer, look at the big "transit " vans. not the transit connect. find one with seats in the back. That is what I am using in my bus for the kids, three point belts, cloth, they recline a little, and are removable.


desertfather 10-11-2018 03:52 PM

Like I said, I felt like I was kind of doing this under a microscope. All my friends had heard about this bus, and were asking me all the time about how it was working out. Meanwhile, all these people from my church had planned this big campout months earlier, and I'd signed me and my family up for a spot in the RV section of the park, thinking we'd take our skoolie. Surely, I'd thought, after having the bus for several months, it would at least be campground-worthy, right?

So yeah, it's two days till campout time, and I'm pretty much committed to that, and all I have is this empty box with the original plywood on the floor. The first thing I have to figure out is what I'm going to do with the floor. Am I going to tear it all out and "do it right," and kill any rust, insulate it, and put down new flooring?

Maybe this is a good time to explain my thought process with this bus. In the beginning, I thought a bus would be a great alternative to tent camping, or pulling a trailer, for long road trips. My wife and I both have family in the Midwest and Central Plains. But as we got to know the bus better, we realized this isn't going to be a long-haul road warrior, probably. It's bumpy. It's loud. The engine and transmission seem to be reliable (the bus only has 144,000 miles on it), but it's not geared for high speeds. If you want to go 60 mph, you have to do it at 3000 rpm. I'm no diesel mechanic, but I'm thinking trying to do that for a long time is...bad.

Plus, it's small. I've got about 14 feet of space from the back of the driver's seat to the back wall. So the interior clocks in at, what, about 100 square feet, so it's not like we'll ever live in this thing, either. This is not a tiny house we'll try to live in someday, and it's not something we'll drive to Yellowstone. It's an adventure bus, a camping rig that we'll use as much as possible for drives down into the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania, up to Ithaca and the waterfalls, the Catskills, maybe the Adirondacks. Within a few-hour radius of our home, we have all kinds of cool places we can see.

With that decided, the overall aesthetic of the bus took shape in my mind. I mean, I'd had months to stare at the inside while all the title and inspection issues were happening, so I'd kind of figured it out. I didn't want it to look like an RV or a living room. I wanted it to be spare and clean and bright and utilitarian, with wood floors, wooden bunks, decent shelves and storage space, and lots of attachment points where you could hang things from rings or carabiners. I wanted it to be a mobile basecamp that would still be warm and cozy when we wanted it to, and open enough that it would feel spacious even when we were all inside.

So I made the fateful decision -- and y'all can hate on me for it if you want -- to not tear everything out, and not treat it like a showroom piece or a bus that needs to last us for the next thirty years. The wheel wells were immaculate under the rubber, but I have no clue how things look under the wood. I'm pretty sure there's surface rust. I'm reasonably sure, though, that the bottom isn't about to fall out of the thing, and like I said earlier, the supports underneath are solid.

Anyway, I cast the dice, crossed the Rubicon, etc., with less than 24 hours to go before the campout I'd set as a deadline for having a usable interior. I cut up a bunch of pallets I had gotten for free, and nailed the boards down onto the existing plywood, so the space would at least look semi-respectable. It looked...semi-respectable.

The interior ended up being all free-floating stuff the first time we used it, and everyone followed me in the minivan when we drove out to the campground, for obvious safety reasons. I brought along a mini-fridge and a window-unit A/C that we could plug into 110v once we got there, set up a small table I'd pulled out of a pop-up camper, and had everything else in duffel bags. The floor was the sleeping area. The whole rig looked pretty shady once we showed up at the campground and took our reserved spot between the more normal trailers and RVs.

So sketchy. In the photo above, you can see the bus, the MSR shade awning I strung up over the back of it, and the slackline I attached from the tow hooks under the bus to the trailer ball on my minivan. The kids totally dug it -- it ended up raining like crazy one night, and a lot of our friends were soaked in their tents and suffering in the humidity, while we were dry in our bus, and comfortable with our redneck A/C and mini-fridge.

In all seriousness, we tried to be cool with the campground owners and with our neighbors, and explained that our bus was very much a work in progress. And people were actually really nice! They were really interested in the bus, if a bit disappointed that there still wasn't much going on inside.

My little guy had the right attitude:

All right, more on the unfolding saga tonight or tomorrow. Spoiler alert, though: so far, I've managed to paint the outside of the bus and build a decent interior. Looking forward to showing the rest of the progress, getting up to the present, and getting thoughts on where to go from here!

desertfather 10-11-2018 03:58 PM


Originally Posted by magnakansas (Post 294176)
I like your bus. I might have an idea for seats, go to a ford dealer, look at the big "transit " vans. not the transit connect. find one with seats in the back. That is what I am using in my bus for the kids, three point belts, cloth, they recline a little, and are removable.

Thanks, man! I hadn't thought of that at all. I've kind of moved in a different direction interior-wise, and have basically gone ahead and started building in my own seating, with the plan of bolting seat belts to the chair rails, through the floor, etc. But seats like that sound like a good alternative, and could be a good direction if I make replacements and alterations.

Or for the inevitable second bus. :)

desertfather 10-12-2018 08:55 AM

We had a good time on our campout, but we definitely weren't happy with the sleeping situation without any furniture in the bus (surprise). We used what we had: two cots for the grownups, and a futon pad and miscellaneous foam pads for the kids. Our two small dogs came with us, too, so they were in a crate underneath the fold-up table in the front. All the real estate in the bus was taken up by sleeping people at night, and everything had to be picked up, stacked up, etc., in the daytime. Seating was a bunch of camp chairs. It worked, but it wasn't much fun.

So I spent most of the month of July making sketches of the interior and planning things out. I played with a lot of ideas, looked at floor plans here on this website, and read about how people had built their interiors. Eventually I landed on a setup I liked. This is how I sketched it out:

I sort of measured it out according to windows, in the interior space of the six-window bus. The entry way and steps inside the front door would be the mud room. The front 2.5 windows behind the driver's seat area would be the "living room" area, with a loveseat-sized couch that could flip out to extend into the aisle, and a table across the way that could drop down to make one big bed platform at night for the grownups. The next 2.5 windows (and then some) would be the kids' bedroom area, with double bunks on each side, and that would be where all their stuff would be contained. Behind the bunks, the back window area would be floor-to-ceiling shelving, with space underneath one of the shelves for a port-a-potty if necessary.

You can see most of it in the drawing, I guess. It's worth pointing out here that the interior design was basically defined by how I expected to use the bus: mostly in campgrounds, or maybe in friends' back acreages, and maybe the occasional boondocking setup. The goal for me and my family wouldn't be to just be in the bus all the time; it's supposed to be a basecamp for hiking trips, climbing trips, fishing trips, and stuff like that. Ideally, we would do most of our cooking and eating outside, but there would be enough space inside the bus for that, in case of bad weather.

In order to maximize the space, I also planned an awning on one side of the bus, and a roof deck up top. That would give us a lot of ways to use the bus, and space outside to spread out and still feel like we were connected to what was going on inside.

So then I started building stuff.

desertfather 10-12-2018 09:43 AM

I started building bunks first.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I realized that to make bunkbeds that make sense in a skoolie, you have to build them low. I actually made mine so that the frame that would support the bottom bunk would be *under* the chair rail. That would make the beds really low, to the point that there wouldn't be much storage space underneath, but in my case, most of the space would be taken up by the wheel wells (and on one side, the rear heater, which I left in place) anyway.

I went with a simple build, using 2x4s. Doing this wasn't too complicated, but since I wanted the actual platform of the bed (made from plywood/OSB) to lie right on the chair rail, I had to notch the end boards with a jigsaw so they'd fit nicely under the rail. You can sort of see it in the picture above. So the bottom bunks actually don't have a wood piece running along the wall; the platform of the bed just rests on the chair rail. End rails have holes drilled through them so they can be bolted into the chair rail.

The top bunks are exactly halfway up the windows, which I find gives just enough room for the people on top and bottom to be able to move around with some degree of comfort. The top bunks *do* have a wooden rail running along the windows, and that rail is screwed into the ribs between the windows.

For the outer long wooden rails of the bunks, I had this nicer wood that I'd gotten for free awhile back on Craigslist, so I used that stuff. Along the inner edge of those, and along the window-side top bunk rails, I screwed in 2x2s that would support the actual plywood platforms that the mattresses would rest on.

I used OSB for the actual platforms of the beds, since I'm on a budget and am doing as much as possible using free/secondhand stuff. Some good, thick plywood would have been nicer, but the bunks turned out well and I just left the windows open for a few sunny days to let any fumes out from the OSB. I attached the high posts to the ceiling using right-angle brackets that I slightly bent to fit. I just ran sheet metal screws through the posts closest to the windows, since they were cut at a sharp angle anyway and I could go right through them into the ceiling. Anyway, in the end, it all turned out pretty well:

Oh, I should mention the dimensions, because they relate to the mattresses I want to use. I built the bunks so that the platform space is 26.5 x 75 inches. Combined with the outer bunk rails, the beds end up coming about 28 inches out from the wall of the bus. Why these numbers? Well, a full-size mattress measures 53 x 75 inches, so I figured I'd make the bunks the right size so that I could cut a full-size foam pad in half, and have two bunk mattresses.

Those are narrow bunks -- considerably narrower than twin-size mattresses. But they're wider than the Coleman cots we've used for a long time (those are probably 23 inches wide or so), and we're not big people. I'm the biggest in our family, and I'm 5'11" and 155 pounds, and I can sleep on the bunks totally comfortably. At any rate, these are mainly for the kids, and our oldest is 11, so even if they grew up to need bigger beds, it would be awhile.

So the plan was to get hold of two thick full-size foam/memory foam pads, and cut 'em lengthwise to have four bunk mattresses. Those are pretty expensive, though. So the temporary solution is what you see in the picture above: top bunks just use the old Coleman cot pads; one bottom bunk has the old futon pad, folded so part of it goes up the wall, and the other bottom bunk has a twin-size foam pad I found, currently wrapped in a big old IKEA rug I had lying around, which makes it a little more kid-proof. I also found a bunch of throw pillows in the basement that we weren't using anymore, and voila, the result is couch-like seating/bedding on both sides.

Honestly, now I'm considering just getting one foam mattress to use for the top bunks, and keeping an eye on Craigslist for the free futon mattresses that pop up from time to time, and use them on the bottom bunks. They're good and thick, and it's nice to be able to sit down there and lean comfortably against the wall.

Tango 10-12-2018 09:57 AM

Doing it "your way" and designed to fit your needs is what building a Skoolie is all about. Great start and please do keep the pix coming.

Excellent art on the sketch BTW.

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 11:41 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.8 Beta 4
Copyright ©2000 - 2019, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.