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This Bus Renovation Idea Was Insane. Now We Think It’s Genius.

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An adventurous couple from Boulder, CO decided to quit their jobs, buy a rundown bus, and completely renovate it themselves.  Their final goal: to live out of this new home while traveling all over the U.S. with their cute Bernese mountain dog.

What this old bus turned into is highly functional and quite luxurious.  You won’t believe the finished photos.  Enjoy this slideshow from the creators themselves…

They knew picking the right bus was the most critical decision.  Here’s what they decided on:  a 2001 37-foot GMC school bus

“Getting to a point where we can set out on the road is going to take hundreds of hours of hard work, countless tough decisions, and thousands of dollars.”

They found the bus on Craigslist, spent some time with the owners, and learned their original intention was to convert the bus into a mobile restaurant.

“The owners had already done some work on it, such as removing the seats and painting it white. This was a plus as yellow buses are illegal to drive in many states.”

Knowing how much work they would need to do with the renovations, they were able to negotiate the price down to stay within their total budget of $6,500.

“We settled on $5,500 for the bus, which left us another $1,000 in our bus budget to do the necessary repairs.”

Here’s a sneak-peak of what their finished luxurious and highly functional RV now looks like.  Follow along to see it’s progression, and their thought process along each major step in the renovation…

Their first step?  They removed all the interior paneling and insulation.  In order to do this, they used a grinder to grind off all the rivets.

“We used an angle grinder to slowly shred off the heads of the rivets so that we can pull the panels down. Each rivet takes between 15 – 30 seconds to grind, but holding the angle grinder up above your head takes a lot of arm strength!”

Then they removed the bus’ rubber floors to expose the plywood underneath

“The rubber and screws holding it in came up really easily. Unfortunately, this hinted at bigger water/rot/rust issues… that were confirmed when the main rubber pieces came up to reveal wet plywood underneath.”

Here you can see the different floor layers: linoleum, plywood, and rusty steel.

“The linoleum in the back peeled up easily. I was excited that it was going so well, until I realized why: the plywood underneath the rubber was completely soaked. We knew there weren’t any leaks coming from above, so it meant it was coming from below. Yikes.”

The end result, a clean floor!

This blueprint shows a rendering of what they hope to build inside the bus.  Their new home will include a living area, kitchen and office space, bathroom, bedroom, and garage in the back!

Next step, they treated the steel floor. This entailed…

1) pressure washing the surface, 2) sanding off remaining rust, 3) pressure washing again, 4) treating rusted spots with rust treatment, 5) filling all of the holes, 6) and finally, painting over the entire surface with a sealing paint.

Their plans even included tricking out the bus with a solar system.  So next up, they installed a solar panel on the roof of the bus.

“Unfortunately, the brackets that came with our solar panels were too short to use on our curved roof, so we had to improvise and build custom mounting panels”

Next up, they removed and rearranged a few of their windows.

Originally we had planned on keeping all of our windows, but after meeting with an RV contractor…”

They decided to remove and panel over the three windows:

  1. Behind the fridge (because it would be impossible to cut a vent through the glass)
  2. Behind the closet area (since they won’t be able to see that window anyway)
  3. Next to the shower (because if it were to “pop down” in transit, it would be impossible to close!)

Now on to the electrical prep.  They plan to have both 12-volt and 110-volt electrical systems, and therefore needed to pull separate wires for each.

This pictures show wires in conduit running from the interior of the bus down into their electronics bins. Blue = 12v, White = 110v, Orange = 10 gauge for an air conditioner.

They also prepped the underneath bins for electronic storage.  This meant partitioning them into two separate spaces with plywood and drilling a myriad of holes for all the wires to pass through.

“Batteries give off some explosive gases, so we had to separate them from all of the electronic stuff even though they’ll be connected by wires.”

They also installed spotlights on the exterior of the bus, a backup camera in the rear, and re-wired the “school lights” (the ones that flash red when the stop sign is out) to turn on only when they’re reversing (as added backup lights).  Nice additions!

Next up, getting a propane tank.  Propane will be their source of heat, and also used to power their refrigerator and water heater.  But in order to stay within budget, they had to FIND their propane tank!

“Under-mount propane tanks are pricey ($350+ for a 12 gallon tank!) new, but our friend mentioned he’d seen a few of these at a nearby junkyard…”

Junkyard jackpot!  Sure enough, the perfect propane tank was waiting for them to discover it.

“No dents, good strong welds, sturdy fixtures. It’s not pretty, but it’ll do!”

Next task: their walls.  Turns out, building walls to fit an irregularly curved ceiling is complicated.

“We ended up doing a traditional framing technique (16″ centered studs, with a floor plate) with a very custom ceiling attachment…”

“We positioned all of our walls along the bus’ structural ribs (so that we didn’t have to put any more holes in the roof of the bus). We attached 2×3’s to the ribs through the side, by cutting a notch in the top of the stud, and secured them with self-tapping screws.”

After working long days to get the flooring complete, the electrical pulled, and walls up, their bus was ready to be spray foamed.  An appointment was made with a local spray foamer who thought the bus was an awesome project.

“We covered everything in tape and paper so they wouldn’t have to do any prep work. We high-fived and checked our email to see what time they would be arriving.  To our dismay, we instead got an email that said the spray foamers wouldn’t be coming and were either going to charge us an extra $800 or cancel the job. Bummer.”

The duo was able to secure another contractor to come out on short notice and insulate the interior of their bus with spray foam.

It’s amazing how much of a difference the foam makes – we’re now able to work comfortably inside on a hot day, which was pretty miserable before the foam.”

Originally, they were planning to install white beadboard for their ceiling.  But after discovering the difficulty to get one piece of beadboard to line up correctly, they returned the beadboard and went looking for another option.

“After 5 trips to the hardware store, we settled on a super flexible plywood material from Home Depot. It wasn’t our first choice, but it was very affordable and, most importantly, flexible enough to make the curves.”

Unfortunately, this new plywood wasn’t going up as smooth as they had hoped either.  Each sheet was showing lots of gaps and visible seams.

“We finally figured out the correct technique as we installed the fourth panel: in order to conform correctly to the curve without any sag or gap we needed constant support down the sides as we screwed them down. It doesn’t look that difficult, but applying that much upward pressure for the time it takes to get these things screwed down is seriously hard!”

Their new ceiling looking really good!

Next up: mounting their propane tank.  Naturally, they faced a big hiccup with this too.

“When we got the tank the junkyard guys told us we would need to take it to the propane company to make sure that the valves were good and get it re-certified. We dropped it off and told them what we needed, but somewhere the message got confused. Apparently we didn’t need a re-certification, so they filled the tank instead…” 

“We were happy that our valves were good and we didn’t need a re-cert, but were not so happy that our 40 lb tank now weighed 200+ lbs full of propane! It was heavy, unwieldy, and I had no idea how we were going to lift it 3 ft from the ground to the frame of the bus for mounting.”

They removed the buses exhaust, built a “scaffolding” structure out of wooden blocks, and were able to raise it up and securely mount it to the frame of the bus.

Their newly installed propane tank: a thing of beauty!

Now time to tackle their furniture and cabinets.  They chose to use high-density MDF due to the cost savings over hardwood plywood… but quickly discovered MDF is terrible to work with.

“It creates a fine sawdust mist that coats everything nearby, and is hard to clean up. On top of that, it splits easily and is incredibly heavy…”

Another inconvenience of MDF is that it must be painted to protect it from moisture damage.

“We picked a color that we were hoping would be ever-so-slightly-blue, just a hint of a tint. On the paint chip, the can, and our test piece it was perfect…” 

“Once it was painted on the furniture and loaded in the bus… it was BLUE!  Like over-the-top gender non-neutral baby boy blue.  In some light it works, and in other light it’s awful.  There’s still a chance that we’ll repaint everything a soft white color. Agh!”

For the front walls they used Colorado Beetle Kill wood paneling.

“This Beetle Kill is something we knew we wanted in the bus from the second we conceived of the project. It’s produced from trees that have been killed by the pine beetle, and doesn’t impact any healthy trees, which we love. It also has a beautiful blue/gray marbling that reminds us of Colorado.”

They didn’t have enough beetle kill to panel the entire bus, so they strategically placed it so you would think it paneled every wall. When you walk in the door and look towards the bedroom, all of the walls facing you are beetle kill. The plain pine is hidden away inside the bathroom and other side of the bed. Sneaky, sneaky!

Originally their plans included buying a new driver’s seat.  But after doing some research quickly learned these were quite pricey.

“So we took our seat to a few different upholstery shops to see what they would charge to refurbish it and learned that we were looking at anywhere from $300 to $400! On top of that, none of them had fabric options that we really liked. There was no way we were spending that kind of cash on a seat that old, especially if we weren’t going to love the final product.”

Enter: their mom. She took parts of an unused slipcover and turned it into a completely custom fitted cover for their ugly brown seat.

Now they have matching custom upholstery throughout the bus — Amazing!

They installed their composting toilet on top of the wheel well.  And this “thrown” quickly became the butt of many jokes.

On to the heater installation.  Quick and easy, right?  Never.

“Right as we finished the heater install, we were startled by a sudden grinding noise – it sounded like someone was drilling a hole in the side of the bus. The heater had somehow powered up on its own!  We rushed out to figure out what was going on and were able to quickly switch everything off.  After the fact, we figured out the two thermostat wires had come in contact accidentally, completing the circuit and allowing the unit to power up.

The reason it sounded so awful was because the fan had come loose and spun itself into the motherboard of the heater, melting and knocking out a bunch of components. We aren’t sure when the fan came loose, whether in transit or in our garage before we installed it, but we are going to have to get it fixed before we can use it.”

Now where to sleep?  Next up: building their bed.

“The bed turned out to be one of those things we thought would be quick and ended up taking longer than we anticipated.  Luckily this time it took longer because we were able to add in a bunch of extra storage that we weren’t anticipating.”

They recruited friends to help put the finishing touches on the bus.

“For the soffit, we used the remainder of our tongue and groove pine boards to cover the wires above the windows.  Best of all, they are easy to put up and take down, so if we ever need to access the wiring underneath it won’t be a huge production.”

We knew we needed to sand and finish the interior walls we’d put up but were really putting it off because we thought it would be a very time consuming task. Our friend took it on and did an awesome job – twice sanded, twice finished with a clear satin polyurethane and it looks great!”

Time to light up their new home.  For the main lighting, they installed energy efficient LED rope lights.  And above the kitchen and bed, spotlights were installed for even brighter beams.

Their bus renovation is finally COMPLETE!

Enjoy the finished pictures and guided tour of their new home on wheels…

Well, come on in!…

These light switches run the interior 12 volt LED rope lights and the outdoor LED floodlights.  The cabinets below offer extra storage for miscellaneous gear (their dog Hilde’s leashes, etc.)  They even added a handrail since the steps up are a bit steep.

Their entryway functions as their “mud room.”  The driver’s seat is the original seat that came with the bus, recovered with an IKEA slip cover to match the rest of their cushions.

WOW – look at that living room!  They ingeniously designed it as a multi-functional space…

On the left they have a cute comfy couch.

Flip up their couch and underneath is an integrated storage system. Perfect for storing all types of outdoor gear –  Nice!

And on the right they have two modular configurations.  Config #1: A simple flip-down dining room table.  Great when hosting guests.

Fold the table down and they have some nice open floor space…

Perfect for their adventure partner, Hilde, a big Bernese Mountain Dog who really likes to stretch out!

Their kitchen is bigger (and nicer) then most people’s first apartments!

The kitchen is by far our favorite “room” on the bus.”

They have everything needed for cooking a delicious meal, including an Electric/Propane RV Fridge…

A cute two-burner propane stove…

And a small oven.  While driving, the oven gets stowed under the couch.

The pantry fits just enough food for the two of them, and also serves as medicine cabinet.

Their office is situated directly across from the kitchen.  Enough room to stretch out and feel like they’re in a “real” office space.

The dining room chairs double as their office chairs.  Big rubber feet keep them from sliding when the bus is in motion.  In between the chairs you can see their solar power readouts. That’s right – their electrical is 100% powered by solar!

In their bedroom is a comfortable 6″ memory foam mattress. Above sits a book library, nestled in some floating shelves.  Below lives a ton of storage and an air heater (for those chilly fall mornings!)

In front of the bed are two drawers for their day-to-day clothes, one for each of them.

The bathroom is nice and simple.  They choose a composting toilet for the benefits of not having to deal with black water, no need for a black water tank hanging under the bus, and no need to store stinky sewer hoses.

But does it smell?

“Amazingly, no!”

Opposite the toilet is a small custom shower.

Last up: The Garage.

“This is definitely the coolest room on the bus…” A perfect place for storing all our favorite gear – five ten bike shoes, our Santa Cruz mountain bikes, helmets, backpacks… the list goes on. 

“Not only is the garage bright and covered with fun stickers, it’s full of all our favorite things: ski and snowboard gear, mountain bikes, backpacking, climbing, and kayaking stuff, and all our outdoor goodies.”

And that’s it!  Wow, what a project.  And what a beautiful result.  The ultimate mix of functional design and simple modern style, all in a 200 sq ft bus.  May their new home take them on countless adventures across the country!

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