Little Advances in A Big Campaign

Hi everyone! I’ve been taking a break from blogging these last few weeks to concentrate on getting the bus polished up, prepped for paint, going through mechanical issues, ordering parts and of course, working my full time job to pay for this whole project. “Balance” is definitely the operative word when it comes to a project of this magnitude. When we first hatched the plan to buy a bus, gut it and turn it into a high-speed living room, I envisioned attacking the project head-on with every moment of my spare time, every ounce of spare energy and every penny or dime we could find. I envisioned myself waking up at 5 am everyday to get a few hours of work done before going to work, spending every single day off grinding metal, throwing saw dust and basically kicking a constant stream of tiny-house construction ass. That might have worked on a smaller project. Or if the bus was parked in our backyard. Or if I was 18 again.

But this is a big project, the bus is parked 45 minutes away and I am 30. What does that all mean? I’ve got to consider my real life (my job, my partner, our dog, our bills, not to mention the health of my back) and balance that with my insane drive to finish this project as soon as possible. SO, I’m trying a new tack: I’m accepting that this project will easily reach into the summer but I’m also doing my very best to appreciate and nearly savor every moment I spend working on the bus and celebrate every little accomplishment; whether it’s a major job, like mounting the generator or a little task, like replacing a single burnt out light bulb, they are all pretty awesome little successes that take us one step closer to hitting the open road in our tiny home.

Here in Northeast Florida we have had a lot of wind and rain and generally lousy weather lately. This has really affected how much we can work on the bus and has honestly changed some of our priorities. About three weeks ago a major thunderstorm storm ripped both of our roof escape hatches from their frames, threw them across the truck yard and damaged both of them. The morning after the storm, I found one cracked laying atop a low-boy trailer about 20 feet from the bus but the other one was no where to be seen. I searched anxiously for about 45 minutes before I found it. I actually climbed on the roof twice before I spotted a familiar silhouette nearly 150 feet away under the back two axles of a newly arrived flatbed trailer. I jumped down to investigate and realized that our hatch had landed gently in a mud puddle only to have been backed over by the trailer sometime early in the morning. I was pissed.

A fallen soldier: our escape hatch lies in pieces under the merciless axles of an 18-wheeler.

One hatch was mended with some duct tape and some shoring to keep it in place but the other was crushed. It still held it’s shape but it’s days of keeping water on the outside of the bus were over. I threw a trashbag over it and braced it in its old frame. It sort of keeps the rain out now. SO, new hatches or skylights just got moved way up in out priority list! More on that soon!

Making some art work. We decided that we want a larger shower in the rig so we voided out another window to borrow some more space from the living room/kitchen. Our shower should be right about 4’5″x4′, a little better than the 3’x3′ coffin we had planned originally. Also, maybe a day with rain in the forecast wasn’t the best time to rip big holes in the side of the bus.

At this point, all of the windows that are getting removed are gone and are sealed up. I’m really happy we saved most of the sheet metal from the ceiling because it has provided us with great material to void out the old windows. I have also been mercilessly tracking down and patching any leaks in the window frames and bus roof that I can find. Come to find out that the way the Blue Bird Bus Body is assembled, there are some very unfortunate weak points where the stantions (the vertical posts between the windows) meet the bus sidewalls where if a little strip of caulk is missing, water pours down the inside of the bus walls. Not an awesome design for keeping the bus dry but I’m sure it’s main intention is just to add more rigidity to the body of the vehicle. To add to the problem, a lot of our 22 year-old caulking is failing. I’ve spent the majority of my last 3 visits to the bus just laying down fresh caulk and scraping out the old crap.

It feels great to get this beast resealed and lay down some fresh material.
Recaulking, one window at a time.

I’ve also been prepping for paint. Initially, I thought we would wait until our interior build was finished to do this but our roof has a few leaks in it, mainly from old rivets that have just been bashed loose or little seams that are opening up between layers of sheet metal. It doesn’t make any sense for us to put fresh wood, insulation and wiring into the bus only to have it get soaked, so rather than slathering the roof in caulk and hoping for the best, we decided to just go ahead and apply a fresh coat of primer and elastomeric RV roof paint. This stuff is thick and rubbery and should do a lot to keep the water out and also keep the surface nice and cool when we’re parked in the sun.

The first step of a good paint job is good prep. I really wanted pressure wash the bus but our storage yard doesn’t have running water and I don’t have a pressure washer. They can be rented but they are expensive. My immediate though was to just give her a good scrub instead. I rigged up a wash down system in the back of our SUV with an old 55-gallon drum, some wire an awesome expanding hose (which helps to keep hose pressure) and the brand new freshwater pump for the bus.

Off-the-grid bus wash set up. Check.
Soap and elbow grease has got the roof white again! Yippie! This was an incredibly gratifying day at the bus.
Our multi-thousand dollar investment suddenly became less of an eyesore; all we had to do was add water!

That’s about all I’ve got for now, thanks as always for following our progress and look forward to a lot more updates in the coming weeks!

Generator mounted and Bus Body ready for Insulation!

It’s been a busy week for us; Sarah’s been working full time at Winn-Dixie (her grocery store) and cheering me on while I grind, drill, cut, caulk, fiddle and generally work on the bus (and cruise Amazon for the next cool part to buy for the bus). I have also gone back to my Captain training aboard The Schooner Freedom after a three week winter break (an awesome tradition started by the owners where the ship shuts down so that everyone that can afford it, can go out west to ski their brains out for a bit). Over the coming weeks I hope to really hone my technique docking the big single propeller boat (no turbo-charged water jets or bow thrusters as I’ve been spoiled with on my previous vessels) and also dial-in my ability to properly trim the schooners two massive gaff-rigged sails and her three headsails for sailing in what is often highly variable wind conditions in a very narrow channel. It’s going to be a fun few weeks trying to add this to my professional repertoire!

A whole lot of Sailboat. The Freedom patiently waiting to start up her 2020 working season.

Since my last post I’ve not only been dreaming of sailing ships of yore and practicing my nautical words but have also been making some nice progress on our bus! As you saw in my last post, I finished fabricating In Transit’s generator mount in our back garden but have since mounted the whole assembly under the belly of the beast. I’m really happy to say that it works great so far. It really dampens the vibration and sound throughout the bus while the generator is running and it is soooooo damn handy. Getting power and running power tools is no longer a huge physical effort, just unlock the door, slide out the gen-set, check fluids, slide her back in, pull the starter cord and poof, power. Not as simple as flipping a switch in your house but way better than crawling around under the bus, unlocking a padlock, dealing with a huge tarp, and getting a face full of exhaust on start up and shut down.

Our new handy-dandy little generator slide out. It doesn’t slide out quite far enough to make checking the oil on the back truly easy but it’s a HUGE improvement from a few weeks ago. And it’s going to save my back!
While the generator mount does restrict our ground clearance somewhat, we still have a solid foot underneath so we’ll just have to be careful about driving over big ditches and humps. I also have an idea to mount a small spring-loaded arm and pressure switch attached under the bus, forward of the gen-set that would be hooked up to the old “open door” alarm and set up to buzz if I’m about to bottom out the gen set while driving over tough terrain.

In addition to the coup getting our generator hooked up under the bus, I also took the dive and finally gutted our inner sidewalls. The lingering suspicions of potentially moldy fiberglass insulation inches from our sleeping faces was too much of a “what if?” so I had to find out and get it out of our new home.

Rather than grinding out roughly 400 rivet heads, I figured I’d go the easy route and just cut the metal away to pull the old insulation. Armed with a cordless drill, a 1/8″ pilot bit, a 1″ step bit and electric shears, I made a series of two holes in each panel to be removed, one in the top left and the other in the bottom right with the pilot bit. I came back around with the step bit to open up each hole so it was large enough to get the shear part of the electric shears and simply made two cuts per hole and four cuts per panel to cut out each panel. No sparks, not much dust and the whole operation was complete in about two hours!

If you’re curious, this is what a step bit looks like. These things are SUPER handy for working with metal and with some cooling fluid (soapy water in a spray bottle), this one from Harbor Freight has held up for years so far.
Big step bit holes prepped for electric shears.
Another fine tool from Harbor Freight, the electric shears (the corded drill-looking tool on the floor) demolishing the sidewalls.

After completely draining two 18v cordless drill batteries, two hours and a few trashbags of insulation later, all the sidewall panels were out and the passenger side insulation removed. Just as I suspected, it was damp and gross. I’m really happy I took the time to get that garbage out of there. While it will cost a bit more to insulate the bus sidewall as well as the floor and roof, I’m sure it’s going to make our quality of life aboard much nicer in the long-term. I still had a little bit of energy left in me at the end of the night so I took some time to tape out our floor plan and suddenly, I could see our new interior taking shape! It’s amazing how incredibly exciting some blue tape on a steel floor can make a guy…

Our clean gutted bus and the rough draft of the floor plan. Clockwise: Bed in the back, night stand/dresser ahead of the bed, shower and toilet over the wheel well, kitchen area in the bottom right of the image, our couch/settee bottom left, wood stove area just above, refrigerator, power cabinet and library just above the other wheel well.
View from where our bed will be. I really like the new LED lights, at night the bus really feels like the inside of a space ship or some big cargo airplane.

Generator Mount nearly complete!

Our generator sits happily on it’s slides on it’s new cradle. Bus mount for the whole assembly lays behind it.

I’m not a welder and have never even turned on a MIG welder prior to this week. I did watch a bunch of YouTube videos, read several articles and have watched curiously over the last 10 or so years as professional welders practice their craft. But I took a stab at it and I’m pretty pleased with the results so far.

Same dramatic camera angle as the first photo, but the generator is retracted in it’s slides. IT WORKS! (The whole thing is temporarily mounted to those 4×4’s so it doesn’t all fall over as I push it back and forth like a obsessive man-child.)

I am lucky enough that my Dad had a MIG welder he had and was willing to let me borrow for the duration of the project so the most expensive part of the problem was already solved for me. As far as, learning how to lay a weld, I realized that I had to take a first step and just try with the limited knowledge I had. So, after a full afternoon of spattering molten steel all over myself and the back garden, I finally managed to lay a decent little weld by night fall and was happy to call it a day. As you saw in a previous post, I managed to cobble together a frame for the generator to hang from the belly of the bus the next day and for at least an hour or two every day since, have been trying to piece the cradle together and bring this fairly complex part of the build to an end. I had a moment yesterday where I felt completely in over my head and asked myself “what the hell were you thinking biting off this project?” I chopped some of my bed-rail angle iron for the slide mounts 3/4 inch too short, had to fabricate some extensions to weld onto them, then realized I hardened the steel and I couldn’t drill through the weld. A trip to the hardware store for a new pilot hole bit and a conversation with an old-timer where I learned about annealing or heating up the steel red hot with a torch then letting it cool slowly to soften it, saved my whole day, got my pilot hole punched through the steel and reassured me that I might actually have this.

The garden: a lovely spot for to sip your morning coffee or tea and to make things out of molten steel.

I’m sitting here reveling in this particular phase of the project nearing some modicum of completion however there will be quite a bit more to do before the generator mount is complete. Of course finishing the welds and physically mounting the beast under the bus is first off but sometime soon, I’ll also be enclosing the genny with soundproof(ish) walls, designing a cooling/aspiration and exhaust system and also wiring it into our electrical system. But why bother with all this generator subassembly stuff right now? Why not focus on the glamorous stuff like making the bus liveable? Well simple: I need electricity and I need to take better care of my back. Our storage yard doesn’t have easy access to a power hook up (the nearest one is about 300 feet away from my parking spot) and due to security concerns in the area, I’ve been having to load and unload the 100 lb+ generator in and out of the back door of the bus every time I need to use a power tool. 20 year old Austin might have been cool with this but apparently even at 30, you wind up paying for that exertion for a while afterwards. I had a few evenings early in the build where I could hardly move after moving this beast around for a couple days in a row. So, for the sake of my back and so Sarah could have a fiancee that didn’t stagger around like a crippled 70-year-old iron worker, the generator needed mounting.

Our generator slide-out door and finished voided windows. The slide-out door needs the rest of its hardware mounted, the edges ground out a bit and generally cleaned up but it’s getting there! I cut our slide door about 18 inches wider than the actually generator slide so I’ll have room to mount a little locker/shelf for jerry-can storage below the bus.

Hopefully, I’ll wrap up our generator mount tomorrow and will be getting back inside the bus and onto our inner-sidewall removal by the end of the week and with any luck, onto finishing our window relocation on the driver’s side and insulating shortly after that! Stay tuned and as always, thanks for checking in!

Some Windows, a Generator Mount and a Boat

My new office: the 72′ gaff-rigged, traditional Schooner FREEDOM at it’s home in St. Augustine, FL.

As I mentioned in my last post Sarah and I recently went back to work on the bus after a two and a half week break for Christmas and New Years. What I didn’t mention is that we actually went back to having jobs. Shocking that two people on the interweb that own a skoolie and an adventure-themed blog would also have jobs, right? Well as it turns out, a month and a half long road trip across North America, rent at a beach condo in Florida, storage for a 38 foot bus and a major conversion to turn that old bus into a liveable space, has an uncanny ability to whittle down one’s savings account.

Sarah’s picked up work as a shift leader at a local grocery store and I had a very unique offer to train to become the Captain of a 72 foot, Gaff-rigged Schooner set up for tourist day trips in St. Augustine, FL. I used to consider myself an avid sailor and even lived aboard my own little sailboat for two years along the Southern US coast. I sailed the snot out of that little sloop and crewed on about a dozen other sailboats and by the end of it, when I finally moved on to big diesel passenger boats, I thought I was a damn fine sailor.

Fast forward, four years and about 14,000 nautical miles under the keel aboard big steel and aluminum power boats and practically no time actually sailing in that time. I figured I could just pick up my sailing career right where I left off. Turns out one really can get a bit rusty after a few years of not using a particular skill set. Also learning how to trip sails on a traditionally-rigged schooner in light and variable winds in a narrow channel subject to quite a bit of current presents one with quite a learning curve. The long time owner and full time captain, Captain John is luckily a great teacher and very patient. Coming aboard this boat and literally learning the ropes has been a blast. It’s been challenging but hugely rewarding and I’m really looking forward to finally getting cut loose with the boat and her excellent crew in the coming weeks.

Snarly-Charlie doesn’t quite know what to make of being on deck of a gaff-rigged Schooner. Actually, I’m not sure he’s thrilled about boats in general.

On to bus stuff! The Generator Mount: Finally after the last month of skteching, tinkering in my backroom, drawing up schematics, poking ineffectually around the bus, cutting, re-cutting and many random bus-related ideas popping into my head at 3:00 in the morning, things are finally rolling again and I have fleshed out a lot more of the gritty little details of the build. For one, how do I mount a 115 pound 4000 Watt utility generator on slides under a school bus?

Initially I just thought of bolting our generator directly to the underside of our floor with a few bolts and bushings but quickly realized I would still need to be able to fill the tank from the top, access the pull start on the side, plug in our house power and easily change and add oil. The whole thing also needed to be inside a weatherproof sound-proofing box to keep our little mechanical beast clean, dry, rust free and to quiet the noisy little beast so we could actually turn the thing on and hear ourselves think (and, you know, talk to each other and stuff). Suddenly my generator mount got a lot more complicated and a bit more expensive. Due to the design of the generator frame itself, I realized pretty quickly that the 250 lb-rated drawer slides I bought from Amazon would need to be mounted low on the generator frame. Also with vibration being a concern for sound-dampening, the generator and slides themselves needed to be isolated from the bus frame via big rubber bushings somehow; I also figured that these bushings would help reduce shock-loading on the generator frame and bus floor while bashing down pock-marked logging roads in the Yukon and Northern BC. So, the general idea is that I had to build a steel box frame, bolt that to the underside of the bus body, build a cradle that the generator would mount into via the heavy-duty drawer slides, then mount the cradle into the box frame with some hefty bolts and rubber bushings. The whole rig gets finished off with sheet metal sides, foam insulation, an air intake fan power by the generator itself, an exhaust port/exhaust extention/exterior car muffler and a big door panel chopped out of the side of the bus for access. Should be easy to use once built but to make it, I had to source and cut a lot of angle iron, buy a bunch of hardware and somehow learn to weld.

A general idea of how the mount will look as viewed from the side.

Steel isn’t exactly cheap if you buy it new. I searched for about a month for a supplier where I could get all of my 2-3″ angle iron but pretty consistently, my quotes were in the hundreds of dollars. Money was tight and I wasn’t even sure I could weld it together with any amount of success so I kept putting it off. Finally, last week, I had an epiphany (In reality, a memory from another skoolie owner’s blog I found several months ago): Bed Rails! Bed rails are perfectly abundant and a super cheap source for good, rust free angle iron! A trip to Goodwill and less that $45 later, I had two sets of twin bed rails and exactly what I needed to build my generator mount.

I re-measured my generator, drawer slides, available space under the bus, carefully considered adjustments to my blueprint, slapped on a $5 chop saw blade on the miter saw and was off to making a big fiery mess in the back garden.

I wouldn’t recommend using a miter saw that you especially cherish or that has a lot of plastic bits on it like this one for chopping your angle; it gets really hot, melts bare plastic guards and throws sparks and slag all over the place. I completely destroyed my laser blade guide on this one with puddle of molten iron shavings. But it still cuts a pretty damn accurate miter!

Once all my bits were cut, I took my ever handy angle grinder, polished off most of the paint (I should’ve prepped my steel better, I got a lot of spatter, bubbles and generally ugly welds due to poor electrical connectivity when I first started), broke out my Dad’s loaner Lincoln Electric 140 HD MIG Welder with flux core wire and got to work making sparks. I don’t have a great place to work, essentially my whole shop worth of tools has to be mobile enough to put in a closet every night so I dropped a piece of free plywood on the ground in the garden, took some of my old ceiling sheet metal to use as a backer and tried to get the first side of the steel generator frame as square as I could with magnets, clamps and whatever I had lying around. I placed a couple tack welds to hold it together and improve the electrical connection through the piece, checked it’s square and layed down a bunch of welds. Repeat for the other half and tack the whole thing together. For a first time project, I was pretty happy with the results:

A big metal frame, yippee! I’m really excited to finally have this generator mount put together. Kind of looks like an aquarium stand doesn’t it?

I’m headed to the bus later to dry fit the mount, measure for the access door cut out and drill some mounting holes in the bus body.

The Windows: voiding and repositioning emergency escapes and frames

A school bus has a ton of windows. We really did’t need to make sure sixty-six kindergarteners have a nice view of their ride to school anymore so at least 5 needed to come out and get covered with sheet metal. Luckily we had a ton of the stuff left over from our gutted ceiling so the supplies were handy and free but how to do it? I’m not really supposed to be welding in my storage yard and moreover, I’m not a great welder by any stretch of the imagination. After pulling out a window and it’s frame, cutting a window-hole sized piece of sheet metal, I realized I could just remove the glass in the frame and press the sheet metal in place. Add 6 sheet metal screws to hold the sheet metal to the old window frame, rebed with caulk, and we’re done. I’ve finished 3 in this way already and am about to move onto the other two later today. Simple, cheap and so far it seems really sturdy and watertight!

Freshly painted bumper, clean hood, three voided out sheet metal windows and both passenger side window escapes repositioned. The generator trap is what you see under the bus; the new genny mount, access door and gear storage will be just aft of this general area.

While I’ve been working inside the bus, gutting things, I’ve really come to love the simplicity and effectiveness of the Blue Bird Standard window emergency escape hatches. I can open all four in less time than it takes to open two normal windows, they let in a ton of fresh air and because they hinge at the top, are very effective at keeping the bus dry even when it starts to rain and they’re left open. I couldn’t resist not keeping this awesome feature and incorporating them into our new floor plan. So one of our aft hatches got moved up into our living room area and the other aft hatch is getting moved forward by one window bay to fit between the toilet and shower. I wanted to put them both in the bedroom (for fresh air and the terrifying prospect of having to bail out in the middle of the night) but unfortunately, the three aft windows are either a size too big (34″ rather than 27″, wtf?) or are partially blocked by a structural piece of sheet metal (far aft window).

That’s all the rambling I have time for today, thanks for following our work! Now I’m off to go drill some holes in an old school bus!

Where did you go? A holiday lull and Sarah and Austin go back to work

I scraped, grinded, scrubbed, primed and painted our ugly floor! Then I tracked mud all over it.

Christmas time and the winter holidays are one of the most beloved times of the year. It’s also a great time to become financially overextended and to bring a screeching halt to your most exciting personal projects (i.e.: building a 20 year old school bus into a traveling home).

So after a few-week sabbatical, we are back at it! I’ve spent the last two days patching holes in our floor with JB weld and plates made from the old ceiling and finally getting a good coat of paint across the whole floor to try and seal it up from any future rust issues.

Eventually, this subfloor will be covered by XPS foam board insulation, a layer of plywood and then finally faux-wood vinyl flooring to finish it all off. The pretty vinyl stuff won’t come until the very end, after we finish framing out the interior and installing most of the other carpentry (no reason to install some nice flooring and then cover it all up).

My next big task will be resealing a leaky hatch, voiding out windows that will be behind furniture, moving side escape windows around so they suit our floorplan better (I’ve found that by propping open the top-hinge escape windows during the demo I can get a lot of really nice air flow through the bus and I figure it would be a shame to do away with them), recaulking most of the other leaky window frames and possibly removing the existing stock stainless sidewalls. I’m dithering on whether to remove them because they are riveted into the bus frame and there are a lot of rivets. I know our best bet in the long term is to rip them out and reinsulate with modern foam but the cost, labor and knowledge that we could just insulate over them is keeping my busy fingers moving onto less dirty and more rewarding tasks at the moment.

Here’s a sneak peak at my next post: a couple windows removed and a dry fit with some freshly cut sheet metal.

Rounding the Corner (Almost): We start putting stuff back in!

Forward seat backs removed, ceiling removed to first rib, floor prepped for paint.

Up until this point, our bus build has been one enormous demolition project. My daily routine has been as follows: show up to the bus, open windows, crank up the generator, put on some loud, fast crossfit-esque music on our Bluetooth speaker, break out the pry bar, grinder, sledge hammer, skill saw, etc. and DESTROY. I came up to a surprisingly threshold over the last two days of work when the an alarming thought popped into my head, “Maybe I don’t want to remove this next thing…” Shockingly, I had arrived at the point where I felt like we could start adding material rather than mercilessly gutting the old bus interior. Definitely a big day in the project.

Disgusting rotten plywood floor coming up! At this point I was really curious about how bad the rust would be underneath.
I began the floor removal by just trying to rip up as much as I could with a hammer and pry bar but it made a horrible mess. I resorted to the tried and true skoolie method of making lots of criss-cross cuts with a skill saw set to about 3/4 inch and dividing the gross plywood into manageable, stackable square chunks.
After clean up, a nap and a shower: all the flooring is up and plenty of surface rust. I did find some deep deep pitting around old bolts and nails but thankfully, no enermous gaping holes in our sheet metal floor.

After our rotten plywood and vinyl floor was totally ripped up, I set to work dealing with the rusty floor. I picked up several cans of rustoleum Rust converter from home depot and a surprisingly expensive wire wheel cup ($19.95!) for our 4 1/2 angle grinder and set off on what was to be the most filthy task of the project so far: Getting rid of the floor rust. A good set of gloves, some goggles, long sleeves, boots and a quality respirator are highly suggested for this task. As soon as the wire cup hit the first patch of rust, I was engulfed in a giant orange cloud of dust, rust particles and broken-off wire wheel wires. Time to open more windows and turn on an air mover or big fan if you have one (I didn’t).

Grinding the rust off the floor created an enormous pile of dust and coated every surface of the bus with fine rust particulate. A broom works fine for getting the majority of the rust up but here’s where the vehicle’s air brake system comes in really handy: under the driver’s side there is a large pressure tank that holds air pressure for the brakes and is filled by the engine-driven air compressor whenever the engine is turned on. On the pressure tank there are multiple ports to drain water out of and should be a couple of ports that are plugged on top. One of these ports on our bus had an accessory fitting to plug air tools into with a valve. If your bus doesn’t already have this fitting installed, you should definitely take advantage of this unlimited supply of compressed air and install the $10 quick-connect fitting and valve.

Air Brake pressure tank with accessory valve. As long as the engine is running, you’ve got at least 100 PSI at the ready!
Harbor Freight air gun and hose. This set up makes cleaning dust, dirt and god-knows-what off of walls, the overhead, cracks in the floor, the dash and yourself immeasurably easier. I also have a inflator wand I can hook up to this air hose and top-off our tires with.

After wire-wheeling and cleaning up the rust dust, I broke out the air gun to clean all the nooks and crannies and prep for rust converter. The paint can recommends washing with soap and water before painting but I was afraid of just adding to the rust by doing this so I just continued to clean with the air gun until I could wipe the floor with a rag and it would come up clean. Three spray cans of rust converter later, all rust spots from the driver seat to aft of the wheel wells were covered. I then took some sheet metal from the old ceiling, took the flapper disk on the grinder, lightly ground both the front and back of the metal to give it some “tooth” (ruffed-up so that paint and adhesive will hold better) and used the electric shears to cut the sheet metal into about 50 1.5×3 inch strips plus a handful of 3×3 inch squares. The strips are for the holes left by the seat mounts and the squares are for covering larger random rust spots. After out rust converter cured, I set to the fiddly task of gluing down a million little bits of sheet metal with JB Weld to cover the holes. As much as I wanted to continue into the night, I had enough fun after the first 20 or so patches and called it a solid day’s work.

Rust converter and patches in place. Not too glamorous, but sort of exciting: its the first material we’ve added to the bus rather than ripped out!

Getting rid of trash is sort of an issue for us currently, our work yard doesn’t have a dumpster and the nearest dump is about 35 minutes away (in the opposite direction of our condo) so, we’ve had to stash all our trash inside until we can take an hour and a half out of a workday to get rid of it all. What that means is about 1/4 of the bus is just filled with trash at the moment and I’ve got to shuffle around old floorboards and old seat back foam filled with detritus before I can work on a particular area. [I would greatly recommend to anyone doing a skoolie conversion to get a little dumpster for the first portion of the build.] With that being said, most of the 9 foot area aft of the wheel wells is just storage for trash and tools and I’ll have to continue the process of once we make a trip to the dump or I complete the forward floor paint and can shuffle the trash forward. Not ideal at all but we’re working with what we’ve got!

Charlie loves all the space up front now that the seat backs are gone and so is most of the sickly-sweet smell of wood rot. Also, he just wants me to throw his ball and doesn’t care at all about old school buses.
More bus fetch.
“In Transit” coming along nicely.

Making Plans: Getting into the Project

Up until this point in this blog, about all you’ve seen are photos of a dirty, 20-year old bus. Well, you’re going to get a lot more dirty old bus pics in the coming weeks but I thought I would let you in on my vision and share our plans for what the thing is actually going to look like.

Driver-Side Cross-Section.
Passenger-Side Cross-Section

I feel like our design is pretty utilitarian but also cozy. A few of my favorite design elements so far are the combination power control panel/book shelves, wood stove and our combination settee/couch/guest bed. You’ll notice we have our freshwater tank inside; we plan on living aboard in subfreezing temperatures in the Rockies next winter so the I figured it would be best to keep as much of the water system as possible inside.

Power will come from any of four options: 1.) Our House batteries will be connected to the Starting Batteries via solenoid that isolated the house bank from the Starting bank. The idea being that we charge all of our batteries while we drive, but we only pull from our house bank while parked. 2.) Run our gasoline generator. Noisy, but we can charge our house batteries (or starting batteries in a pinch), run a welder, make some daiquiris, etc. 3.) Plug into shore power. Plug our 30 amp generator plug straight into a power pedestal at an rv park. 4.) Solar! We might not have solar panels to start out with but we will have them by the beginning of next winter.

In other news, all of our seats have been disposed of (we actually made $28 in scrap value for the frames!), got rid of most of the cushions (drove 45 minutes to the dump and paid $3 to get rid of them), our ceiling is almost out and the floor is coming up too.

Via con Dios school bus seats, thanks for all the fun we had together.
Austin in destruction attire.
most of the ceiling down and gobs of fiberglass insulation thrown out.
The VIPs of the project so far: a prybar, 3.5 inch Ryobi angle grinder and Mjolnir, my old blacksmithing hammer from my friend Brandon Vaughn at VooDoo Forge.
At the end of the day, I still had enough curiosity and gumption for about 20 more minutes of destruction. I figured why not tear out some floor and see what our sheet metal floor looked like. Some rust, but not as bad as I thought it might look!
A horrible little rust-monster. Looks like Austin will be breaking out the MIG welder after all.

Our next steps will be to finish removing the rotten ply wood floor, grinding off some rivet heads on the sidewalls and tearing those out (hopefully this will be a great, somewhat safer opportunity, to teach Sarah how to use the angle grinder) and going back with our electric sheet metal shears and cutting the last major price of ceiling sheet metal off just aft of the 2nd interior rib. We may just leave the driver’s area ceiling as purely “stock school bus” to save some time and keep some of the original aesthetic (hence the idea of just cutting the sheet metal rather than removing the rivets that hold the driver’s ceiling in place).

Thank you for reading our blog so far! We love getting your feedback and really appreciate all 200 hits so far during this project! I’m really looking forward to getting to more creative (and less destructive) projects in the next week or two! Stay tuned…

Gutting the Interior

Interior starting to look less pretty. One step closer to actually building stuff.

Four hours on a Sunday afternoon and the ceiling is coming out! After removing the rest valence panels, I broke out the pry bar and blacksmith hammer tried wrenching out the ceiling panels and rivets. 5 minutes and some very sore hands later, still no rivets out. So time for the grinder again! By making two cuts on either side of the rivet core (not sure if that’s actually what it’s called), then another cut perpendicular to the first two, I found that the whole rivet just crumpled under the pressure from the pry bar. Still a pain to get the rivet out, but much easier.

Detail of rivet cuts and pry bar location.
So… many… rivets…

So in this method, I managed to get a couple ceiling panels out and about half the ceiling rivet lines in the bus ceiling pre-cut in about 2 1/2 or 3 hours. I probably could’ve gotten the whole thing finished in a day with Sarah but, I was by myself, my arms felt like lead and I was getting tired of grinder sparks starting little fires in the right sleeve of my fleece pull-over. SO off to more fun things. Like removing the crossing arm body (a simple two bolts and an airline which, if I can trace out the air supply switch, I’m hoping to repurpose into the supply-line for a sweet, super loud truck horn I’ll install later), chasing out the currently inoperative stock “beep-beep” horn wiring and removing and storing the overhead dome lights and lenses, ceiling speakers and the internal fairing/trim for the two ceiling escape hatches. I think we’ll make a rainy day project of cleaning the lenses and prepping, priming and painting the trim pieces and speaker bodies. They sounded great when I drove the bus home so I figure we’ll just freshen them up and reinstall them later in the build.

Stuff being removed from the overhead. Notice our growing pile of garbage.
Crossing guard arm body totally removed. I’m starting to fantasize about what she’ll finally look like with her final green and white paint. *Note about our paint plans: the neighborhood the bus is parked in is a little rough, so paint is probably one of the last things we’ll do before we hit the road; attracting less attention is the name of the game right now.

Nuts and bolts: Getting to work

So far our bus build hasn’t really been much of a build, more of just shuffling things around. We have managed to get the bus home, pull the seats out but haven’t managed to get rid of them yet. We took a load of about 10 to the local scrap yard in the back of the Highlander but quickly got turned around because they wouldn’t accept them with foam and vinyl on them. Damn. One more thing to do.

So we set to work, bought a fresh new box cutter and a pry bar and tore our seats apart. We lined up all 22 seats outside of the bus, made lateral cuts through the vinyl all the way around the bottom of the seat backs then just pulled the vinyl and seat foam right off.

seats all lined up for de-cushioning
First batch stripped

With two box cutters and a bit of motivation, Sarah and I had all the seats stripped in about an hour then all was left was to use a pry bar and my hand-forged blacksmithing hammer “Mjolnir” (thanks to my friend Brandon Vaughn of Voodoo Forge for holding my hand while we made this a few years back) to pry out the plywood strip that the vinyl is actually stapled to at the bottom of the seat back.

All of the seat components loaded back into the bus to await the scrap yard and trash heaps.

Because it was a Saturday and the scrap yard was closed, we loaded the seat frames and all the trash that came off of them, back into the bus to await Monday. Feeling the need to make a little more headway on the project, I took down the first valence panel along the upper edge of the windows just to check for mold and to glimpse the actual guts of the bus before we called it a day.

No mold! Just the sweet, sweet view of commercial vehicle primer …and a ton of fiberglass insulation.

Feeling content with our half-day’s work, we packed up, ate some sandwiches and hit the nearest brewery in old town Springfield. Tomorrow I’ll be back to hopefully rip out the rest of the valences, pull off the remainder of the crossing arm assembly and maybe start in on removing some rivets in the ceiling.

Sarah’s Dirty Ham Sandwich.

The Maiden Voyage: Austin learns to drive a school bus

Our first and second days of owning a school bus had been very productive thus far: 22 seats taken out, photos taken for our State Farm Insurance Agent to prove we actually took the seats out, 22 seats reloaded and strapped in behind the driver seat, Generac 4000xl Generator loaded and Gas can loaded and secured behind the passenger-side crash barrier. Our next goal: actually driving the beast home.

A bus full of stuff.

I do not have a CDL. I have never driven a school bus before. I have never driven anything remotely as big as this thing on land before. I drove a big dually pick-up and a 30 foot horse trailer working as a horse-drawn carriage driver on Jekyll Island, GA one winter. I am a US Coast Guard-Licensed 100-Ton Boat Captain and have driven pretty big tour boats (80 feet) in the past so between my experience between the horse trailer and the boats, I felt really good about getting the bus home.

As soon as I fired up our bus and drove it away from the seller’s farm, I immediately had two revelations: 1.) This thing is HUGE. 2.) Air Brakes are not hydraulic brakes. After a ridiculously jerky start (air brakes are either “on” or “off”; so riding the brake pedal isn’t really a thing you want to do at slow speed), I managed to keep my foot off the brakes until I actually needed them only to scrub every single low hanging branch along the side of the seller’s winding, wooded driveway. Getting out onto the two lane highway was another shock as I realized just how much of a standard-width road lane a school bus actually occupies (basically all of it). After a few moments of gathering myself and idling along, I press the gas, the RPMs climb, the turbo whistles and we were off! With Sarah and Charlie behind me in our Highlander, we begin to wend our way across the south Georgia countryside, passing giant Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss and sprawling cotton fields. Despite from my speedometer cutting in and out intermittently and a unfounded sense that some sort of terrible mechanical failure would occur at any moment, the drive goes incredibly smoothly. About 35 minutes and two grey hairs later we make it to our Motel for one last night before our big drive home the next day.

Charlie ready to hit the road (and to get the hell out of the Motel 6 in Americus).

The next day we woke up early with surprisingly stiff muscules but eager to get on the road and complete this first phase of our bus project. After about an hour of sitting in the motel office, tying to get our insurance paperwork to print at a legible size and quick game of fetch in the back of the bus with Charlie, we loaded up, Charlie and Me in the Bus and Sarah, once again as our chase car in the rear.

Legal(ish)

It was a beautiful, clear 60° F day in South Georgia as we set off at about 11:00 am and headed southeast towards Albany, Tifton, Waycross and ultimately Jacksonville. Still being new to the big vehicle and somewhat leery that an unknown mechanical grimlin would rear it’s head at any minute, the 30 mile drive from Americus, GA to Albany, GA felt like it took HOURS. This was only compounded by our now entirely inoperable speedometer and odometer and lack of an onboard clock. In reality it took about 35 minutes. A pee break for all three of us, a fill up for Liz (Our venerable Toyota Highlander) and a reassuring conversation with Sarah that I was in fact not swerving all over the road in our big bus and we were off again. My anxiety somewhat subdued, we were off again on our maiden voyage headed to Tifton, the halfway point of our drive. This is where I really started to enjoy the trip. The sun was out, the air was cool, no alarms had started blaring, air pressure in the brakes was holding and I was driving our big turbocharged future home. Within about an hour, I was very relaxed; Charlie was loving looking out the million or so windows, chasing his tail, playing fetch with himself with a tiny rock he found. At the Tifton city limits, I was only diving deeper into my diesel-driving bliss when Charlie starts whining and whining consistently. Nothing too weird, he is only a year and a half and has a tendency to get bored and then incredibly anxious. But still, it was odd for him to be this needy. Then I remember our full Gasoline can I stowed aboard for the generator last night and I immediately realized why I was becoming increasingly blissed-out: we were getting high on gasoline fumes. Shit. Poor little 30 lb Charlie is way more sensitive to this stuff than 215 lb me, we need to stop, quick. Another realization: urban areas aren’t necessarily the easiest places to just pull over in a 38 foot, 8 Ton vehicle. We spend another 15 minutes cruising and Me furatively trying to find a pull-out spot. I finally find it at the city fairgrounds and I don’t even bother to look for the leash. I park, shut down, we both pile out and breath our first breath of fume-free air in an hour and a half.

Sarah, loving as ever, grabs a ball and another impromptu game of fetch ensues, I break open the Yeti and make some thick turkey sandwiches for us, I relocate the gas can to the back of the bus, open most of the windows, Charlie loads up with Mama in the Highlander and we’re off again!

The rest of our trip goes increasingly smoothly: three hours, a few more pee breaks, a stop for $102 worth of diesel (yeah, apparently “fuel-effiecency” is a relative term when it comes to these big trucks), dozens of cotton fields and the Okeefenokee swamp later, we roll into our rented truck-storage yard in downtown Jacksonville just after nightfall feeling a bit drained and a bit sore but none-the-worse for the wear and feeling very, very accomplished.

The beast all tucked in at her new home. Now all we have to do is gut, clean, design, build, paint, re-title, move in, provision and drive away to Alaska. Simple.