Skoolie Conversion Roof Raise | How To Raise the Roof, Add Sheet Metal, and Add Windows
Raising the roof on a school bus conversion is a big project with an even bigger payoff. There are several ways to do a roof raise and multiple variations within each approach which can make this process really overwhelming to figure out.
I'd like to share with you how we did our roof raise and what we learned through the process. If you'd like to skip to a specific part of the process, here are some shortcuts.
How Much To Raise The Roof
Keep Or Toss The Original Windows
Where To Cut Your Bus
Raising The Roof
Securing The Roof
Adding Sheet Metal Walls
Adding New Windows
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Why We Did It
We knew we needed to do a roof raise as soon as we stepped inside the bus. At least, Matthew did. Being six-foot, his head was awfully close to touching the ceiling in there. I, being a whopping 5'3" (on a good day), could have lived without the roof raise and not have even noticed. Even though Matthew's head wasn't really touching the ceiling, it probably would have after adding a thick hardwood floor and our insulated ceiling.
The second reason we decided to do a roof raise was to make more room for cabinets. With the ceilings up higher, we could make our cabinets and closets taller. Any amount of extra space you can get in a school bus makes a big difference.
Lastly, it makes the room feel twice as big. When we first walked into our school bus, it felt small. You could tell it had low ceilings. Now, after raising the roof, the room really opens up. It's not like you walk in and say "You have such high ceilings!". More like walking in and subconsciously noticing that the room seems bigger than it should be.
This is also why we chose a light gray for the walls and white upper cabinets. The light colors, especially near the top, give the illusion of bigger spaces.
After deciding that a roof raise was absolutely necessary, we had another decision to make.
How Much Should We Raise The Roof?
We have seen lots of skoolies with roof raises and it seems like everyone raises it a different amount. We've seen raises as little as ten inches and some as much as three feet!
Some states have different regulations on how tall overpasses are to be built. Being is Washington, it seems like our overpasses are higher than those on the East Coast. This is something to keep in mind when deciding how tall to raise your roof.
You wouldn't want to make your skoolie 15 feet tall and accidentally go under an overpass that only has 14 feet of clearance.
We felt safe having our skoolie be around 12 feet tall since that will fit under most overpasses safely. It just to happens that our bus is exactly 12 feet tall including the rooftop deck. This wasn't intentional but we are happy that it worked out that way.
In the end, we decided to go with a 16 inch roof raise. This gave Matthew plenty of head room and extra space for taller cabinets while keeping things safe.
Now for a really important question.
How Do You Raise an Entire School Bus Roof???
This question is really a few questions. There are many ways to raise a roof and each way requires a different process and set up.
To Keep Or Not To Keep? (The original school bus windows)
For simplicity's sake, some people will opt to keep the original windows. Some will block out a few of them for privacy in the bathroom or remove a handful for more wall space.
If you're like us, you'll opt to remove the bus windows and install your own RV windows. This definitely takes a bit more work and more sheet metal, but is well worth it.
The windows were surprisingly easy to remove. Once all the inside walls were removed, all we had to do was pop them out using a crowbar. We also removed the exterior covers of all the ribs. These too popped off fairly easy. We did leave the insulation inside even though it was that nasty fiberglass stuff. We figured that any insulation we could get would help and we weren't going to use spray foam for the ribs.
Where (and how) To Make The Cuts?
Let me just say that there are endless ways you could go about cutting your bus up for the roof raise. You could raise the entire roof, only a portion, do a sloped transition, raise half of the windows and keep some low and so on and so forth.
Most of the time, people keeping the original windows who also do a roof raise will opt to raise the windows with the roof which means cutting the walls below them. I have seen a few where the roof raise starts above the windows which keeps them at the original height.
If you take the windows out, it will look something like this. This is the bare-bones metal frame of the school bus.
We chose to cut through each of the ribs alternating the heights. Doing the cuts this way adds structural strength to the walls by spreading out the weak point. If we had cut just straight across, then the weak points of all the ribs are at the same spot making a continuous weak line.
We chose to not raise the front of the bus. We stopped the roof raise right where the door begins. This way we didn't have to worry about what to do with the door or the front lights. We did a long cut across the top of the roof to separate them.
We also did a cut along the back side of the bus to free the roof from that wall. Unlike the front of the bus, we wanted to raise the entire back which is why we made our cut on the wall and not on the roof.
We made all these cuts using a combination of an angle grinder and a reciprocating saw. We did go through a couple cutting wheels since they wore down so quickly so make sure to buy a multipack.
This is where things begin to get sketchy because you are now standing under a very large and heavy piece of metal that is not fully attached to anything.
How To Actually Raise The Roof?
We chose to raise our roof using all thread and a car jack. We created a device using all thread, some nuts, and round tubing to look like this.
We tacked on these all thread "jacks" to six of the ribs throughout the bus. Two in the front, two in the middle, and two in the back.
The car jack is what actually lifted the roof. We placed a 4x4 "T" on top of the jack that would support the roof as we raise it. We started on one end of the bus and slowly raised it a couple inches while adjusting the corresponding all thread. Then we moved to the middle, then the back, then repeated it all until we got the entire length raised 16 inches.
After using the jack to lift the roof a couple inches, we would tighten the top nuts on the all thread to support the weight. After raising the roof about 8 inches, we hammered in some steel square tubing to a handful of the ribs. We welded the bottom of the tubing to the rib but left the top alone so it was still able to slide while we continued the roof raise. This was to add some extra support to the roof because it was getting a bit too wobbly for comfort.
It was a long process and we were all very eager to get it over with and to get out from under the swaying roof.
Had we had some extra hands and more jacks supporting the roof, we would have felt much safer and could have gotten it done faster. If you choose to use a method like this, I would definitely recommend having as many people help as you can round up and getting more than one jack if possible.
If you have the resources available, there are some other ways we've seen a roof raise happen. We've seen forklifts a couple times or a crane with a bunch of straps. We definitely didn't have either of these options just laying around so the sketchy jack it was.
Securing The Roof in Place
Once the roof was raised, we had to add new supports to fill in the gap. Since the ribs of the bus are hat-channels, we were able to get square tubing, cut it to length, and hammer it right into the rib. Everette, Matthew's dad, is a great welder and welded all the square tubing in place for us.
We also needed to build in frames for each window we were going to add. (Note: we already bought our windows by this point so we knew exactly how big to make each frame.) We made each of these window frames with square tubing as well. Since we have wide windows, they didn't all fit between the ribs. We had to remove some ribs, at least partially, and add in the horizontal window frames.
We used ten pieces of 4' by 8' sheet metal in total to finish all the walls.
Before we could get the sheet metal on, we had to do some prep work to the bus. For starters, we had to remove a bunch more rivets which Matthew just loved. We removed all the rivets holding down the rain guards that were over each window. Using a chisel and a hammer, we pried the rain guards up a little bit to create a small gap. This is where we slipped the top of the sheet metal into which held it in place.
We also removed the top line of rivets from the top rub guard on the side of the bus. This is where we slipped the bottom edge of the sheet metal into.
When putting in the sheet metal, start from the back of the bus and work your way forward. This way all the gaps from your overlapping seams will be facing away from the front which will better prevent rain or wind from getting in while you're driving. Theoretically these gaps should be sealed perfectly and this wouldn't be an issue, but every little thing helps.
After all the sheet metal was slipped in place, we used the existing holes from the rivets to screw it all back together. Before screwing in the top line, we hammered the rain guard back down as much as we could using a wood block to soften the blow. This made the gap smaller which meant the screw didn't have to do as much work sucking the guard back in place. We used self-tapping metal screws that had a waterproof washer on them. We also caulked over the seams to make sure everything stays water tight.
To attach the sheet metal to the ribs took some extra work. From the inside we used a drill to drill a small hole in the top and bottom of the hat-channels. Since we used square tubing to fill in the ribs, those spots didn't have the side flaps to screw into like the hat-channel. This is where Everette's welding skills came into play once again. He was able to weld on angle iron pieces to the square tubing which gave us something to screw into.
From the outside, we used those drill holes to draw a chalk line to mark all the ribs where we needed to put screws. We put a screw in every six inches.
We didn't need to screw the sheet metal to the window frame, because this will happen when the new windows are added.
This is how the back transition turned out with sheet metal.
Installing New Windows
Since we removed all the original school bus windows, we needed to find replacements. Matthew and I made a trip to an RV pick-and-pull lot and scored a good deal on a few windows. They were stored outside so came with a bit of moss and sun damaged weather sealing, but those were easy enough of fixes.
We of course had our floor plan already figured out so we had an idea of roughly what type and size windows we would need.
When we added supports to the ribs, we already had the windows so we were able to make the framing the right sizes. This also gave us a guide for where to cut the sheet metal to make the hole for the windows. We used a drill from the inside to mark the corners of the window hole, then used a chalk line on the outside to mark the square. This gave Matthew a nice line to follow for when he cut the hole out using an angle grinder.
We couldn't add the windows until after the walls were built because of how they will be installed, so we just had a few holes in our bus for a while.
Our RV windows came in two parts. The window with one half of the frame attached, and the other half of the frame. These two pieces sandwich over the wall and are screwed in from the inside. We did use a lot of construction adhesive on the outside to better secure the window to the sheet metal and sealed the edge with caulk.
The transition is how we bridge the gap between the front of the bus to the raised roof. We've seen some really smooth transitions that are sloped nicely. Ours did not come out that way.
We ended up doing our transition straight up so we didn't have to worry about angles and bending the sheet metal nicely. It looks a little odd from the outside at first, but it will be a nice place to write the name of our skoolie: "Basecamp". From the inside, the vertical wall made from the transition seems much more house-like than an angled transition would. It is also the perfect place to hang our custom wood sign.
Some people will do a sloped transition which provides extra space for a small storage compartment. This can also help with wind drag since the slope will help redirect the wind over the roof better.
How We Did Ours
Our plan was to cut a piece of sheet metal to fit in the gap and have the edges fold over to be secured to each roof section. So the sheet metal piece would be zig-zag shaped.
We used a large piece or cardboard to make a template of the opening. Then we added three inches around the perimeter for the flaps that would fold over onto the roof.
After tracing the template onto the sheet metal, we used metal shears (also called tin snips) and a plasma cutter to cut the shape out. The plasma cutter was much faster than using metal shears so, if you have one, I would definitely recommend using it. You could also get a metal shear attachment for your DeWalt impact.
Since the top of the bus is rounded, getting the edge of the sheet metal to bend over it would be difficult. Our solution was to cut slits along the edge every four inches or so. This made bending it into place much easier, especially where the roof is more rounded.
To do the actual bending part, we used a mini-sledge and a 2x4 scrap. We only needed to bend the metal enough to slide it into place on the roof. Once we got it on the roof, we hammered it some more to get a better fit. Our template wasn't 100% accurate, so it did take a little bit of finagling to get a snug fit.
Make sure to have a support of some sort under the roof where you are hammering otherwise you will bend in your roof!
After getting it in place and all the flaps hammered down, we used Bondo to smooth everything out. I think we used 3 gallons or so of it!
Matthew's dad was a huge help with this project. He was the one on the roof most of the time and did all the welding and Bondo work to make the transition as seamless as it is.
After the Bondo was all hardened, he went over it with a rasp to level out any bumps and get a smoother finish.
To make the transition as strong as possible, we added two pieces of square tubing in a v-shape standing vertical to connect the two roof levels and provide support to the transition wall.
After a ton of caulk, sanding, and paint, this is how our skoolie looks from the outside. Turned out pretty good for a couple of people who made it up along the way, I'd say.
Now It's Your Turn!
That was a lot of information!
Some of the biggest things for you to consider before starting your roof raise are:
How high you want to raise it.
How much of the roof you will raise.
If you're keeping the bus windows or not.
What your transition will look like.
Once you get these things figured out, all you have to do it make the cuts, add new supports, and add sheet metal.
We are really glad we chose to do a roof raise. It not only gives Matthew some much needed head room, but makes the inside feel twice as big and allows for more storage.
Here are three videos of other people with their roof raises that I think you can learn something from as well. Go check them out!
We would love to share more tips with you and answer any questions that we can! Always feel free to reach out with our contact form at the bottom of the page or by leaving a comment.