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Aaron Newman
June 10, 2023
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5 Tips to Keep Your Bus Conversion (Skoolie) on the Right Path

With bus conversions and Skoolies growing in popularity, particularly so among the DIY community, there is no shortage of interesting and unique projects making their way to me on my social media feeds. Some conversions appear to be pretty simple, and others notably complex, but regardless, I can assure you that at some point someone was scratching their head. After all, what we are doing is essentially squeezing as many of the amenities of home as possible into a sausage-shaped space on wheels, wherein everything is interdependent and stacked right on top of the next thing. 

Sitting down to plan and design a bus conversion can really make your head spin. It can feel as though you’ve been walking in the woods for hours only to realize that you are right back where you started. I’ve been there many times, but over the years I’ve learned an approach to thinking about and doing these projects that helps to keep us on track, and come out with some pretty astonishing results. Whether you are preparing to convert a bus on your own or send your dream project off to a pro like me, here are some tips that will help you avoid a few pitfalls, and keep your project moving forward.

Day Dream

This seems both obvious and natural, and perhaps it goes without saying, but in my experience, it does not. Spend some time asking yourself questions about what it is that you really want from this bus. When you take off on that first trip in your freshly converted custom bus, where are you going? What will you do when you get there? Are you entertaining guests? Are you cooking a gourmet meal on a beautiful and spacious galley? Are you working in a mobile office? How does it function? What does it need to be able to do, and how must it do that in order for you to love it? What part of the bus do you imagine yourself in most of the time? 

Is the fantasy that keeps rolling through your head as simple as sipping your coffee in a comfortable dinette booth, or as complex as a hidden flat-screen television folding down from the ceiling? Capture as much insight into what this bus needs to be for you as possible. Create files, Pinterest boards, Google Docs, or whatever else might work for you. Visit some bus conversions if you can, and take note of what you like and dislike about them. 

The truth is even if you are converting a gigantic Prevost H3-45, you’re going to run out of space. We cannot optimize for everything, so we must optimize for everything that is most important to you. Before we move on to the next step, we really want to know what the purpose of this project will be. The more precisely we can define that, the more likely your bus will be everything that you’ve been dreaming of.

Start Drawing

Once we have a good idea of what it is that we are creating, it’s time to start drawing. Precision is not important here. What we are after is a “broad strokes” idea of how this project is going to come together. I often tell people that the trick is to commit to as little as possible while still finding a way to move forward. The idea being that we are just getting acquainted with this project and this space. We want to be able to adapt as we go and make the most informed decisions that we can. 

Now is not the time to choose your countertop material, flooring, or fixtures. Now is the time to decide that the bedroom will go here, and the galley will go there. Maybe we know from the previous step that we want the biggest galley we can muster, but we don’t particularly care about the size of the bathroom. We take that into account as we divide up the space. 

We start with the areas that are most important to us, and save the least important things for last. If the salon and the bedroom are the two most important areas, we draw them first and make sure that they have the space that they need. Again, we’ll run out of space at some point, better it be when we are laying out the bathroom that we aren’t too worried about than the galley that we’ve been dreaming about. 

We might even make a couple of different versions. Think of it as though we are rock climbing. We aren’t looking at the top of the cliff, we are just focused on finding the next foothold, and we are open to the path as it presents itself. Like I said before, these projects are interdependent, and we need to be prepared to discover something in the next step that forces us to go back and reexamine some previous decision.

Systems

Hot and cold water manifolds assembled neatly in the compact bay space of a vintage 1952 Flxible Visicoach.

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of the conversion. We have a clear vision for how we intend to use the bus, and we have a few concepts for how we’d like to organize the space. Now we need to fuel the vision. When we talk about systems we are mostly talking about plumbing, electrical, heating, and cooling. We could lump audio/video in there as well, but for our purposes, we’ll stick to the big four. 

Our vision for the functionality of the bus, combined with the reality of the space we have will dictate how these systems will lay out. It’s likely that we already have an idea of where we’ll be able to put things like the generator, batteries, inverters, holding tanks, and the plumbing bay. Now is the time to develop an understanding of how much of that we need in order to power our concept. 

It’s time to figure out where your fresh water and waste water tanks will go, the location of your plumbing bay, generator, batteries, inverters, wire chase ways, and water supply and drain runs. We may find that this requires some slight modifications to our drawing or even a complete return to the drawing board. That’s okay, we didn’t spend a bunch of time taking our plans all the way to their conclusion anyway, we kept it simple, broad strokes for this very reason.

With the new subfloor in place and minimal systems installed, we have our centerline and several reference lines scratched and inked on the floor. Next, we’ll lay out the walls.

Layout

This is a step that we take after the new subfloor has been installed. First, we will mark out a couple of reference lines. We’ll want a centerline running the length of the bus on both the floor and the ceiling, and a couple of perpendicular lines dividing the bus into thirds or perhaps quarters depending on the length of your bus. Too many lines can become confusing, so don’t go crazy with it, just try to stick to what you need. You just want to have multiple points from which you can pull a measurement to confirm that what you are laying out is both in the right spot, and square to everything else.

We want to lay out the walls first. I’ve found it best to start at the rear of the bus and work my way forward. A couple of tips here: 1) Take your time, double and triple-check your work, and use a pencil to start. We want to be able to rely on these lines, so it is of premium importance that they are correct. 2) Once you have your layout dialed in, use an awl or a marking knife along with a straight edge and cut your layout into the floor. 

Next, go over that with a permanent marker. The ink will settle into the groove that you cut and help keep your layout around as long as possible. Once we have the wall layout down in pencil, but before we commit to permanent ink, we’ll want to spend some time in the space, and make sure that we like what we have. Remember, this is the first time that we have seen our drawing at scale, and it is a great opportunity to reflect on the plan. Is the bathroom too tight? Galley too big? It will never again be this easy to change something major in your bus, so now is the time to decide if that needs to be done.

Mock it up

A bedroom mock-up. No glue here, just a quick dry fit so that we can see our ideas at scale and get a sense of whether they were any good.

Once the layout has been determined, and the walls have been fit into place, we like to mock up each area of the interior. This is when we first start to focus on the details of the interior. The idea here is to build an area quickly, without using glue or finish materials. We want to see our designs at scale and learn a little more about what works and what doesn’t. This is where we will tweak things, and maybe have some new ideas. Our decisions are far more informed now than ever, as we are standing in the space and have a real sense of what could work better, or really works well. 

In this phase, we will be able to lock down locations for things like outlets, switch groups, lights, and plumbing fixtures. Once we have completed the mock up, we’ll pull everything, taking note of where things like wiring and plumbing for our various systems need to go. Now is a great time to get those things in. One by one we will take our mockups and build them into finished cabinets, reinstalling them once our system components have been roughed in behind them, and leaving only a few loose ends to tie up on our way to completion.

Converting a bus into a highly functioning motorhome is no small feat. It requires knowledge, skills, and planning. Even with those things in place, it can be overwhelming as we find ourselves going back to the drawing board again and again. 

Understanding that adapting our plans needs to be part of the plan is integral to success. Going back to the drawing board isn’t a setback, it’s part of the process. Remembering that as we refine what started as a notion, into a plan, that plan into a mockup, and the mockup into a reality is key to both your enjoyment and success in your bus conversion project.

Article written by Aaron Newman

Aaron has been building custom bus conversions for over 15 years, and recently founded Hightail Custom Coach where he and his team focus on the restoration and conversion of vintage buses. Building to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship, Hightail is dedicated to precision, continual improvement, and customer satisfaction. 

You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @ Hightail Custom Coach.

Aaron can be reached by:

Phone: 541-653-8077

Email: aaron@hightailcustomcoach.com

Web: www.hightailcustomcoach.com

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