This week I spoke with Ben and Marie who have been living in their skoolie for 3 years. Ben is from Ontario and Marie is from Paris, France. This inspiring couple love to work hard for periods of time and then travel intensively either nationally or internationally. From broken brake lines to bus adventures across Canada, Ben and Marie are enjoying their bus life experience.
There are so many Canadians out there who have built or are building incredible custom homes as skoolies. With this podcast, we are hoping to share their unique stories, learn from their experiences, and connect with the broader skoolie network.
This first episode is an introduction to the two of us and our initial experiences with our skoolie. Future episodes will feature interviews with different Canadians who have built skoolies of their own – some as homes, some as businesses, some as recreational vehicles, and we’ll discuss the adventures and challenges they have gone through along the way.
Next up, Dan will interview Yvan Lacroix. Lacroix is a prolific YouTuber and an active and helpful presence on the Skoolie & Bus Conversion Canada Facebook group (a group which has been a great resource for us). He and his wife Sylvie Robidoux have converted three (!) buses and have a wealth of knowledge on skoolies. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from them!
Dan is aiming to publish a podcast every week, and he usually does what he says he will do, so…stay tuned!
Who doesn’t want to see star-gaze from bed? To bring in more natural light, and more of the outdoors, we decided to add skylights to the bus. This involved cutting some pretty big holes in the roof (yikes!). Dan got creative with sourcing the material for this DIY and the results are pretty beautiful. Here’s a video where he walks through the bus in progress and explains how he put these together, and I’ve added a few photos below of the process and result.
Aside from the actual bus itself, our tiny wood stove & chimney set has been our biggest expense, mainly because it is the one thing for which we haven’t found a DIY alternative (see future posts on our countertops, sink, composting toilet, couches and shower for more on all that).
We went back and forth on buying a wood stove for the bus, but decided to go for it since it would extend the season for the bus and give us a reliable off-grid source of heat on colder nights. It can be used as an additional (though small) cooking surface. Plus, after living with a wood stove in our home in northern Saskatchewan, we’ve fallen in love with the romantic glow of a fire and the cozy warmth it brings to a space.
After scoping out reviews and blogs about skoolie wood stove installations, Dan decided to go with Cubic Mini, a Montreal-based manufacturer that specializes in building wood stoves for tiny houses, RVs, vans and school bus conversions. He ordered this Grizzly wood stove ($799) and a metal roof exit kit ($328) and an extra 24″ long chimney pipe ($64). To reduce the overall cost, Dan built his own floor mount with a plywood box/base (painted black with fire-resistant paint) with a metal plate to sit under the stove.
We had a warm spell in the last week of January, and we seized the opportunity to install the wood stove and chimney. I say we because I actually did help with this task, measuring and holding things steady and even drilling a hole in the roof (nervously) but Dan deserves 95% of the credit for this project (as per usual!).
I asked Dan to explain his process for this, so here goes:
Locating the right spot in the bus for the fireplace. I selected mid way down on the passenger side. The passenger side was selected so the chimney would be on the curb side when driving down the road, and in the middle of the bus to allow the heat to be distributed equally throughout the bus (I still need to get some kind of fan).
Exact measurements. I had to measure the total height of the outside pipe, plus the height of the inside pipe, plus the height of the stove. It became complicated when I had to allow 12″ above the highest roof line within 3′ of the top of the outside pipe for fire safety clearance. Based on these complicated measurements, I was able to determine that I needed to build a 24″ base out of plywood and the top covered in metal . To maximize the space and and have everything do two jobs, I made two separate compartments in the base, one for wood and one for paper.
Installing the chimney I placed the stove on the floor and used a plumb bob to find the exact middle of the 3″ hole on the top of the wood stove and determined exactly where to mark the spot on the roof to cut. I used a protractor to draw an exact 7″ circle for my 5″ outside pipe to pass through. The extra space is required for clearance and safety. I drilled a pilot hole from the inside of the bus, through the roof to indicate where outside I needed to make another 7″ circle. Once the circle was created, I used a jigsaw with a metal blade to cut through the roof and cut out the circle (DO NOT CUT THE MAIN STRUCTURAL SUPPORT CROSS MEMBERS). Once the hole in the roof was finished, the outside pipe was 12″ above the nearest point, it was secured and bolted in, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief as this was the first hole I ever cut into the roof of the bus. Since then I have added a 6″ and 8″ skylight to the roof, (blog post to follow)
Pipes were all screwed in, the rain boot was double/triple sealed with heat resistant silicon, inside pipe was mounted to the top of the stove, the stove was placed on the box I made and the box was screwed into the bus floor.
Jobs to still complete with the wood stove: Fire resistant metal placed around the wooden objects 12″ from the wood stove, stone flooring laid over the vinyl flooring for safety, and the inside flange needs to me mounted once the ceiling is put in place.
The wood stove is working really well. Having the stove in the bus has made it more comfortable for Dan to get some other building projects done in the bus even when it’s cold outside, which has been really handy. As a result, he’s gotten way more done than we anticipated for this stage of the year.
Since the stove was installed, our weather has ranged from -5 to -25 celsius and this stove is definitely intended for milder temperatures. It should be perfect for late spring/fall temps, cooler winter nights, and our planned May long weekend maiden voyage!
…In which Dan’s patience and fortitude are tested.
We knew that we’d be painting our bus as soon as possible after buying it, to make it feel more like home. Dan wanted to get this done as soon as we got the bus home, since winter comes quickly in Flin Flon. We needed a specialty rust-proof paint that we couldn’t get in Flin Flon, so we decided to pick up the paint in on our way back from buying the bus. We had to choose a colour quickly, which was probably a good thing (less time for indecision and Pinterest scrolling!). I had a robin’s egg blue in mind; Dan was looking for more earthy colours. After some discussion at the paint counter, we agreed on a dusty duck egg blue called Paris 1900.
[An aside: I have been in love with Paris since I saw Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina” when I was 13. My love only deepened when I visited with my mom at 16. We drank chocolat chaud for breakfast and walked everywhere and saw all of the art we could take in. I returned at 21, when I moved to Paris, took French classes and slept/worked in a bookstore with a bunch of aspiring writers. I left when I missed Dan too much, and decided to return to Canada, but Paris will always be my first love. Sorry, Dan 😉 So…the Paris 1900 name felt auspicious.]
This paint job was a huge undertaking. The taping was the most time-consuming (and frustrating) part for Dan. Dan worked on it pretty solidly for one Sunday and three evenings after work. I was hoping I’d be able to help but Sophie was just not at a stage where she could play by herself long enough for me to be of much assistance. So Dan (aka family work horse) did everything himself. This included:
Washing the bus thoroughly with a hose and dish soap (and balancing on a slippery roof to clean that too)
Taping off the windows and separating the roof and main section of the bus with painter’s tape and newspaper. Dan taped off the Bluebird logos too so we could keep them intact.
Covering tires with tarps
Covering sections with plastic drop cloth
Painting the roof pale blue with a paint sprayer, letting it dry for about 24 hrs
Painting the body of the bus (one heavy coat).
Removing tape & newspaper
Tools & Supplies
Wagner Flexio 3000 HVLP Paint Sprayer. We justified this purchase because we planned to paint or stain our deck in the spring. I think it was well worth it for Dan’s sanity! The paint went on quickly and fairly smoothly. The sprayer also allows you to choose the volume of paint to layer on so we just needed one coat.
Tremclad Rust paint: 1 gallon for the roof, two for the body of the bus which was JUST enough. We used rust-proof enamel paint, a thick paint, that shouldn’t chip or rust over time.
Henry Tropicool Silicon paint (for waterproofing – see next steps below)
Plastic sheeting, newspaper & several rolls of green painters’ tape
Overall the paint job turned out really well! The colour wasn’t quite what I expected (maybe because we just had one coat, or because we were painting on yellow?) but I think it still looks pretty cute.
Waterproofing with silicon paint: In the spring we will add silicon paint to the roof to waterproof/prevent leaks – there are some holes in the roof from removing the air conditioning unit. Dan filled this with silicon already but the silicon paint will be an extra layer of protection.
A mural: In the spring/when time allows we are hoping to create a mural on one side (we’re thinking a simple treeline silhouette inspired by this and this). Stay tuned!
Photo: Our empty bus in October, while Dan worked on the ceiling, sealing holes and adding closed-cell spray-foam insulation. He worked into the dark to complete the job before the weather dropped below zero.
As we think about the layout of our skoolie, we are drawing on the creativity and design skills of those who have already tackled this challenge, creating beautiful and functional living spaces on wheels.
There are so many impressive skoolie conversions out there, and so many great ideas for using space effectively. Here are a few links to skoolie conversions that have been particularly helpful/inspirational for us. If you have any to recommend, please comment below!
We loved the clean look and creative use of space in this conversion. We also related to the philosophy behind the conversion: the owner, Michael, focused on designing spaces for others to join him for meals and sleepovers, and using the bus as a vehicle for building community.
This family of three really thought “outside of the box” with their design, creating a sophisticated, beautiful home in a skoolie. The most dramatic change was raising the roof of their bus by 20 inches. I don’t think we’ll be doing any roof-raising at this stage, but this skoolie shows how some ingenuity (paired with skilled handiwork) can go a long way to making a space more versatile and making a school bus feel like a family home.
This is a Netflix documentary made by a videographer/musician couple who travelled to North America from Europe, bought a bus, and converted it. Their plan was to make a film about travelling from Alaska to Panama with their puppy. The beautiful videography captured our imagination and the soundtrack is gorgeous too. I loved how they highlighted the interesting people they met along the way, and side adventures – this really appealed to us both and our vision for our own bus journeys. We also loved how they made their bus so homey, cozy and “hygge”*. This doc inspired us to make the jump from “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” to “Let’s buy that bus, now!”
*hygge: a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture). – Oxford online
This is a family of five living full time in a skoolie. Seriously. They make it work with some important modifications: each child has their own (tiny) space in a bunk, and when they aren’t travelling, they have the skoolie parked on a piece of land. There, they have added a shipping container which serves as an office/home-schooling space. Also of note: they live in a warm climate, so they are able to extend their living space outside year-round. Nonetheless, this family’s pursuit of a minimalist lifestyle appealed to us, and we loved the idea of kids learning through the experiences of travel. We have both grown and learned so much through the travelling we did as children and as adults, and we want that for Sophie. Although we don’t plan to pursue skoolie life full-time, their approach did open our eyes to possibilities.
Thanks for joining us on this journey so far! If you have any suggestions, questions, comments or links to follow, please post them below!
In which we explore the thought journey that got us into this crazy super exciting project!
Photo above: Dan and our new bus, taken in Prince Albert SK. Dan had just driven the bus for the first time after we picked it up from Rilling Bus Company in Humboldt – Sept 2019.
Teaching has its perks at times. A nine week summer vacation is a big one for both of us, especially now that we have a three year-old daughter, and families who live thousands of kilometres away (2,649 and 4,500 kms respectively).
For the past three summers we’ve split our summer holidays between Ontario and Nova Scotia. This has allowed us to stock up on quality time, and (somewhat) make up for all of the time we don’t spend with our families during the rest of the year.
But as lucky as we feel to have this luxurious vacation time, last summer we started to feel a little…squeezed. Moving in with your family/in-laws, at age 35+, for a month at a time, with a toddler, is an adjustment. And while our families went out of their way to make us feel at home, and we loved our holiday, we realized that we needed our own space from which to enjoy all of the family togetherness.
We started thinking about how to carve out our own space so we could feel more carefree and independent on our time off from work. We wanted to share time with our families without being in someone else’s space all of the time. And (perhaps most importantly) at the end of the summer we wanted to feel like we’d had an adventure.
We started brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other. We started looking at tiny homes. We talked about buying a sailboat, or even some property in Cape Breton. Somewhere in the tiny home research we found ourselves in a YouTube vortex watching videos of “skoolie conversions”. They looked awesome. And something just clicked. The ‘skoolie’ lifestyle sounded exactly like what we were looking for our summers.
It took about a month of hemming and hawing to decide to go for it. Dan had been keeping his eye on a bus in Humboldt that was in good condition and was a reasonable price. We offered a lower price, and after an initial refusal, they went for our offer. It was a deal!
So why a school bus?
We could drive across the country (hello, beautiful Canada!) with the comforts of home (hello, cherished Vitamix!)
We could have downtime in our own space when we wanted/needed it.
Our daughter could have a consistent sleeping space which would make it easier to be consistent with bedtime routines
We could be more spontaneous and go on mini trips more easily – eg. the flexibility to visit friends overnight without imposing on anyone, or explore a new place without needing to book accommodations.
Design & Cost
It was a totally customizable blank slate, so we could create a space that would suit the way we live and our tastes
We saw so many beautiful skoolie conversions with lots of natural light, flexible layouts, and plenty of space for a small family, so we knew it was possible, and doable.
It was relatively affordable in comparison to an RV (we’ll get into the costs in a later post) especially since we could do most of the work ourselves
Most RVs just didn’t appeal to us (or were way beyond our budget)
The bus could be a short-term rental in the future and be a small source of income
We saw that it was possible to live off-grid for short periods of time, with solar energy and a water tank
A bus is a gas guzzler – but we are hoping to significantly reduce our carbon footprint and gas expenses by converting the diesel engine to run on used vegetable oil (a work in progress)
A family project
We thought it would be fun to channel our energy and our interests into a project we could work on together, or at least plan and research together
Dan is creative, very handy, project-driven and confident that he can learn how to do just about anything (or, if needed, hire someone who can). I think I’m pretty creative too, and good at encouraging Dan’s ideas while also being a voice of moderation when needed. So this project seemed to suit us.
Dan loves a challenge, and an ambitious, slightly crazy one even more. This really is a major factor!
We sang “The Wheels on the Bus” to Sophie every. single. night last year at bedtime, on her request. The kid loves buses. Perhaps this had some subconscious influence?
Where we are today
So here we are, it’s November and our as-yet-unnamed bus is sitting in our snow-covered yard, waiting for summer. We arranged to have the seats taken out before we bought it, so it really is a blank slate. Since we bought it in mid-September, Dan painted the whole exterior, ripped out the floor and installed vinyl flooring, and insulated the walls. We used painter’s tape on the floor to mark out the kitchen, bedrooms and living space.
Inside our house, we have pages of plans stacking up, a chalkboard wall that is sometimes covered in measurements, and I am fielding breakfast-table brainstorming suggestions like this:
Composting toilets are expensive. I can just make one out of a box and sawdust.
Why do we need a fridge? I can make us a cooler that will keep ice cold for three days! I found a video on YouTube…
I think we can convert our engine to run on used veggie oil instead of diesel. Also I found five local restaurants who will give us their veggie oil for free… and I’m going to go pick it up right now.
As this project evolves, we will try to post our process, Dan’s creations, and our conclusions to the burning questions of skoolie conversion. Thanks for visiting and please leave a comment to let us know you were here!