Painting Our Skoolie Conversion | How We Did It and What We Used
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
When talking about a skoolie conversion, it seems like most of our focus goes to the interior. Adding walls and furniture and things like that.
For some reason, we seem to forget about all the work there is to do on the outside.
Matthew and I have a 40 foot school bus which is a lot of bus to cover! Between prepping, cleaning, and painting the bus, it took us five days. This process will take less time if you're converting a shorter bus.
Today, I’m going to walk you through how we painted the outside of our skoolie. Hopefully you'll get to learn from our mistakes and get a few tips along the way.
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Prepping the Bus
The first thing we did to prepare the bus for painting was to host a party. Completely honest! We knew this process was going to take forever, especially if it was just us two. So we bribed some friends with burgers and got them to help us prep the bus. It made the process much more enjoyable and go by much faster.
We started by scraping off the reflective tape, vinyl wording, and any chipping paint.
Removing the reflective tape was harder than we thought it would be. We used a combination of paint scrapers and blades to get it off.
I found starting was the hardest part. Once you got some of the tape peeled up it helps to hold on to it and gently pull as you scrape or slice through the sticky gunk on the other side. Inevitably the tape will eventually break and you'll have to start it up again.
I'm not sure if weather or age affects how difficult it is to remove the reflective tape. I could imagine that maybe extra time spent in the sun could lead to more brittle tape. So your experience with this process may or may not be the same.
There is also the option to leave the reflective tape on and paint over it if you would like. I would try to scuff it up a little bit before applying the paint just to make sure the paint will stick.
After removing the bulk of the reflective tape, there was still a layer of sticky residue left behind.
We found the best way to get this off was with Goof Off and another blade similar to the one below. We applied the Goof Off generously to a Scotch-Brite sponge to wipe it on before scraping. Be sure to get the Pro Strength remover and not the Household version. We went through almost a gallon of Goof Off during this process, so I’d recommend you get a lot as well. Although, we do have a 40 foot school bus which is why it took so much. A smaller school bus won’t require that much.
Also, be mindful that this contains pretty harsh chemicals that put off strong fumes. Wearing gloves while using the Goof Off is recommended.
The vinyl wording (like “SCHOOL BUS”) on all four sides of the bus were easier to remove than the reflective tape. Using the scraper above, they came off pretty easy and didn’t leave any goo behind. It looks like someone tried to remove some of the words on our bus but gave up before we bought it.
We also wanted to make sure to remove any chipping paint or rust patches. Using the paint scrapers or a Scotch-Brite sponge got this off just fine. If we had painted over the chipping paint, our new coat of paint would easily flake off with it in the future.
Since we did a roof raise and added new sheet metal to the siding, we had a large surface of oil slick metal with a small amount of surface rust. (It was raining when we added the sheet metal and trying to cover the bus with a massive tarp was an equally massive task...hence the rust.)
This meant our next step was to sand the entire sheet metal surface. If we didn’t sand the sheet metal to remove the oils and scuff it up a bit, the paint would not have applied well.
We did have a DeWalt handheld palm sander which made it pretty easy. However, since we had many hands help with this part and only one sander, we also used sheets of sand paper around scrap wood blocks. This rout took a little longer but still got the job done.
Finally we were ready to tape off the parts we didn’t want painted. This included windows, the front door, all the lights (gosh there are so many!), mirrors, handles, wheels, the grill, chrome trim, windshield wipers, and all the locks on the under-body storage.
I know, it’s a really long list. It took us two days to tape everything off.
Honestly, you will spend more time prepping the bus than you will actually painting it.
When we taped off the windows, I first outlined the window with tape to get a clean edge. Then I taped on paper which can have a sloppier edge since I already applied my straight line of tape. We bought our large roll of paper at Lowe’s but you can buy it here on Amazon.
TIP: Before you lay the tape down, rub the surface with mineral spirits. This will make sure the tape actually sticks! Before we figured this out, we would tape something off and come back later to see it had already fallen off. Again, this is something you’ll go through a lot of, which is why we bought so much of it. Also, avoid leaving painter's tape in the sun, as the adhesive will get gooey and unusable.
Keep in mind that rubber surfaces, such as the trim around the wheels, won’t hold paint very well. We taped all the rubber surfaces off to avoid any problems with paint peeling off later. However, we did forget about the rubber at the hinges off the underbody storage. All that paint is now chipping off. I took an old tooth brush to it and helped get the flakes off.
Time to Paint!
We used an air sprayer to apply the paint. This made it go faster than if we rolled it on and we got a much more even and smooth coat.
We wanted to keep this paint job on a budget, so fortunately we were able to borrow this paint sprayer from my parents. If you can't borrow a sprayer from someone, you can rent one from Home Depot. Here is the one we used.
TIP: To get more atomization (smaller particles of paint), turn the PSI on the sprayer all the way up. A lower PSI will result in an orange peel texture.
As far as types of paint goes, we used Rust-Oleum metal primer for the base coat. This helps protect against any present or future rust as well as covering up the scratched surface of the bus. We went with Rust-Oleum since it was a much cheaper option thaand helped us stay within budget. This isn’t going to be the most durable automotive paint or anything (a much pricier option), but it works well enough for our budget.
We went through 7 gallons of primer for our 40 ft bus.
In the picture below, you'll see the front of the bus with the primer on.
Even though the rusty brown color wasn't the color of the finished bus, it was so nice to see it all one color and no longer have that sloppy hodge-podge look to it. This really boosted our confidence after all that work.
After applying the layer of primer, make sure to let it dry all the way before adding your top coat.
We called it a day after getting the primer on and saved the top coat for the next day.
For the top coat of white, we used Rust-Oleum gloss enamel.
We went though a little more paint than primer which brought us to 9 gallons of paint.
Matthew was in charge of spraying the paint. He started on the top of the bus to cover the roof first. Then he worked his way around the bus spraying from top to bottom.
At the back of the bus, there are three grates that cover the engine area. We needed to spray over them but didn’t want to paint the engine and all that’s involved behind those grates. Our solution was to tape some paper behind the grates to cover it all up.
Make sure to look at the bus from all angles to check for any spots you may have missed. Around the lights and edges tend to get missed so pay special attention to places like that. While Matthew was spraying, I was watching from the ground to check for thin patches or spots that got missed. It's better to catch them sooner than later.
Another thing I did from the ground was making sure the paint supply for the sprayer didn’t run out. If the paint runs out and you get air in the hose, you’ll have a problem.
If this does happen, dip the paint strainer part of the hose into a small bucket of paint thinner to wash it out while you refill the paint. Before you get back to spraying, you'll need to repressurize the sprayer. Make sure to test the sprayer on another surface other than your bus to make sure it is working properly.
Similar actions should be taken if you get any paint clogs. You'll want to submerge the sprayer nozzle as well as the paint strainer hose in paint thinner and rinse thoroughly to get any paint clumps off. Again, you will have to repressurize the sprayer after this before you continue applying paint.
One thing we didn’t think about until the damage was already done, was that the sprayer hose was rubbing against the fresh paint and leaving lines in it. Ugh!
Once I noticed this had happened, I made sure to hold the hose away from the bus to keep it from happening again.
Also, keep in mind what your surroundings are. Using a sprayer creates a lot of overspray and can leave a fine mist of paint on the surrounding surfaces. Consider putting tarps over things, moving nearby cars, and avoiding windy hours. You’re also going to get paint on yourself so dress accordingly.
It is a smart idea to peel off the tape and paper that you can while the paint is still wet. If the paint dries, sometimes small bits of paint will come off with the tape. Be careful though so you don’t smudge the wet paint. As I mentioned before, painter's tape will get gooey if left in the sun for too long and gets difficult to remove, which is another good reason to try taking it off as soon as you can.
I took off the paper from the windows and the plastic from the wheels first. It was pretty windy where we were and I was nervous the wind would blow them right into the fresh paint.
There You Have It
That's how we painted the outside of our bus and kept it within budget.
Painting a school bus is no easy task, so having a "prep party" to get our bus ready for paint was really beneficial.
As you can tell, we learned a lot through this experience and made a few mistakes. But we learned from them, and hopefully you did too.