Projects & Repairs --> Restoration --> School Bus Conversion

Converting a school bus to a tour bus.

Converting A School Bus
To A Shuttle/Tour Bus

Painting The Short Bus Red Makes It Special... In A Good Way

In This Article:

All the lights and body hardware are removed, the old paint is stripped were needed, the surface is sanded, then the bus is painted.

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Skill Level: 4-5 (Advanced to Professional)

Time Taken: About 200 Man-Hours

By Jim Wilk, Licensed Auto Body Technician


The owner of this 1994 school bus wanted to convert it to a vehicle suitable for giving wine tours and ski tours around Northern Michigan.

That meant a color change was needed, for a start. But before the bus could be repainted, we needed to clean up some surface problems.

 1994 Ford E-350 school bus.

To complicate our jobs further, the owner wanted the bus ready for her first tour, a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl. Of course, that means a deadline of March 17th. We started this job on March 1st.

That sounds like a reasonable task for three guys... but we had a LOT of other work to complete during that time period.

 Rusty areas on old school bus. As we looked closer we found some rusty areas, but it was mainly surface rust.


Sometimes the big 'ol school bus seemed out-of-place around our shop, since we had Cadillac limo, a 72 Pontiac Firebird and an extremely rare Bocar to work on. School bus sharing workshop with Bocar, Firebird, Caddy limo. 


 Removing decal lettering from old school bus. I covered the windshield to protect it. Then I removed the lights from the top, marking each one so it could be re-installed in the right spot. I marked all the wires too.

To prevent mistakes later, I stored the front lights in their own box, and the rear lights in another box.

To remove the lettering, I used a heat gun and a razor-scraper. I warmed up the decal and used the razor to get under the edge of the vinyl, and the letters just pulled right off.


After the front was disassembled, I started working on the rear. Rear of old school bus


Conversion school bus wth rear lights removed.  There are a LOT of lights on the back of a school bus.


Using an eraser wheel mounted in an ordinary electric drill, I removed the rest of the decals.

This 3M eraser wheel can be purchased at most auto-body supply shops.

Removing decal letters with eraser wheel. 


 Removing lettering on school bus. These eraser wheels remove decals and glue residue without damaging the paint.

But remember not to press too hard. It's important to press lightly and let the eraser wheel do the work. Also... hold the drill with both hands because this tool has a tendency to get away from you.

That unpredictable nature is why I did not use it above the windshield... it would be too easy to slip and drop the drill on the glass.


The work in progress was examined by the real boss (the one with the checkbook).

We also reassured Kim that her bus would ready for her "maiden voyage"... a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl.

Conversion bus owner Kim R. 


 Bus with paint stripped from front-top area. I decided to strip the top front all the way to bare metal, because there were so many chips in the paint.


The rear of the bus was stripped where necessary. Stripped paint from rear of school bus for converting to tour bus. 


 Stripping automotive paint to bare metal. Stripping all this paint was not an easy job.

The front was easier to strip because it had been chipped so badly.


I spent a lot of time sanding the roof of this bus. Sanding the roof of used school bus to prepare for repainting. 


 Working on school bus roof is easier when standing on roof. I never figured this would be the way I would get up in the world.

After doing a lot of sanding while standing on the ladder, I just climbed up on the roof to work. It was much easier to move around.


Sandpaper Grit:

I used 80 grit sandpaper on a pneumatic dual-action (DA) sander for the areas that needed to be sanded down to bare metal. Everywhere else I used 150 grit sandpaper.

Bob made metal patches and welded them in to the rusted areas. Welding metal patches into bus door to fix rust hole. 


 Final sanding of bare metal with 220 grit sandpaper. Mike completed the final sanding where necessary, using 220 grit sandpaper on a pneumatic DA sander.


When the sanding and masking was done, we moved the bus into the spray booth. Masking paper and tape on bus windows before repainting. 


 School bus in automotive spray booth for repainting. We completed the masking job by covering the windshield.

We let some air out of the tires to give the painter more room near the ceiling.

Note: Never let the air out completely. The metal rim can damage the rubber if the rim rests on a fully deflated tire.


Bob applied Matrix MP-Epoxy primer first. School bus after painting with Matrix epoxy primer. 


 School bus being converted to tour bus, after primer. 6:00 PM, March 15. Only two days left.

At this point I went home. Bob and Mike stayed until 11pm applying the final coat of paint.


9:00 AM, March 16.

The paint had dried overnight, so I began removing the masking.

Converted school bus after being painted red. 


 Removing masking tape and paper after painting. All the masking paper and tape was removed and the tires were inflated again.

Then the lights, mirrors, grill and accessories were replaced. That took most of a workday.


11:30 AM, March 17.

Kim applied some magnetic signs to the front and sides of her newly-painted tour bus.

Completed school bus conversion project. 


 Tour bus converted from yellow school bus. The things we will do for a smile and a check.

Later we painted the yellow on the inside of the door.


Later in the summer we asked Kim to stop by so we could get some more pictures of her... um, I mean the bus.

Yeah, that's right, we wanted pictures of the fine body--- work.

Tour bus in Northern Michigan, for wine tours and ski tours.


Bus for Cherry Country Group Shuttle Tours. Fine indeed.


FYI: Kim's web site is Cherry Country Group Shuttle Tours


More Info:

Tools Used:

  • Basic Mechanic's Tools
  • Dual Action Pneumatic Sander
  • MIG Welder
  • HVLP Spray Gun
  • Heat Gun
  • Electric Drill
  • Eraser Wheel, 3M
  • Electrical Tools

Materials Used:

  • Sandpaper Discs, 6", Self-Adhesive: 80, 150,220, 320 Grit
  • Sheet Metal
  • Epoxy Primer
  • Paint, Single-Stage
  • Masking Tape and Paper

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Written October 8, 2008