Painting our 31 foot prison bus conversion ourselves was a major turning point in the project process. It was a reality check and flood of REAL emotions you don’t often hear about among the perfectly curated social media posts of #vanlife and #buslife.
Four Weeks of Prep, Four Hours of Painting
Painting our bus conversion was a month of grueling dirty work peppered with a fair amount of questioning as to WHAT exactly we we got ourselves into, and WHY we were doing it. The hardest part, honestly, was and is forgoing a lot of the other things that we LOVE to do; hiking, creative projects, etc. This project takes TIME, but it was 100% worth the effort. The thing that blew my mind the most was how quickly the actual painting process was. It was the prep that required the most time.
What’s the Hardest Part?
We’ve been asked several times about what we thought the hardest part was about our bus conversion project and build. At the time, hands down, it was the logistics: the glamour-less problem solving involved in parking, registering, insuring, and storing our 31 foot rolling post-apocalyptic garbage mobile. YOU try walking into a small town in Maine and registering a 1989 Chevy B6P retired prison bus/mobile command center! Blank stare. Eye rolling galore. Thankfully, I rarely take no for an answer in life. 🙂
“My husband and I bought this bus ~ a year ago. It’s a 31 ft. 1989 Chevy w/ a Diesel engine. Its past life was in VA as a prison bus and Sherrif’s department mobile command center. – – – My husband picked out the beautiful factory maple flooring you see in the photo. There’s also reclaimed real bead board on the right salvaged from a building in Portland, ME. Ben is working on our kitchen cabinets to the left in the photo. We plan on spending weekends in the bus this summer while we wrap up the conversion. – – The biggest struggle to date for us is not the actual work (a lot of which is difficult, dirty, and far from glamorous) but rather coordinating places to park it. There is A LOT of problem solving involved in a project like this but it’s brought us a lot closer as a couple. – – The other struggle was pushing through the comments or questions about why we’re not going the traditional route and buying a house. We’re adults, we’re smart, WHY a bus?! Well… because everyone is different. Our value structure prioritizes debt freedom, flexibility, and creativity. It works for us and feels right. We all deserve that! 😊✌” @wilddrivelife on #vanlife #buslife
It’s SO lovely to look back at this photo and others to see how far we’ve come. As the summer passed and we checked more things off our project list, we knew it was time to paint. We put it off long enough AND I was pretty thrilled to stop getting those head-tilt “You’re crazy…” kind of looks. haha.
Crunch Time, Painting in September
We needed to take advantage of the warmer weather while we had it and protect the bus for the upcoming winter. Though we had an idea of the challenge ahead, you can’t accurately predict how these things will go until you dive in and start working. The events leading up to prep & paint were much simpler, entertaining PEANUTS compared to spending multiple 12 hour days sanding, grinding, cleaning, treating, prepping, taping, etc. We could have easily cut corners, but that’s not our style.
The original bus paint, that saucy shade of blackish rust that garnered SO MANY looks of extreme jealousy (wink wink) was nearly 30 years old! A lot can happen in 30 years.
There was a decent amount of surface rust along the rub rails and hardware, extensive spidering (cracks) and chipping, etc. THANKFULLY we had zero areas that required patching. That’s unheard of with a bus this old but it just goes back to the idea that it was well taken care of. We did plenty of research on the journey of others in the painting department and one thing we knew for sure is that we didn’t want to take ANY shortcuts with the prep. We wanted this done RIGHT.
It took four weekends and roughly 80 hours to fully prepare the exterior for a QUICK four hours of actual painting.
To my surprise, mid-morning of paint day, it was as if I lost it. I depleted my reserves of “DRIVE” for the dream. We spent what felt like an eternity prepping every surface of the bus, only to find a tiny hole we missed that needed Bondo, a section that needed to be sanded again, and a laundry list of areas that still needed to be taped.
I just couldn’t do it…
Orbital sander in hand and covered in dust, I looked at Ben and said, “I’m done.”
THANKFULLY, marriage absolutely rocks in moments like this and Ben was a lot stronger than me here. He brought me back to reality and reminded me of how much TIME, ENERGY, and LOVE we’ve invested in this dream and how incredibly CLOSE we are to being done and moving forward.
We saved +$10,000 painting the bus ourselves.
Sure, we could have easily accepted one of the multiple $10,000+ paint quotes from companies who could have done the work for us, but, I’m glad we didn’t. Despite the difficulty and frustration experienced, we wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Now, we can look at our majestic sea blue, cotton candy-esque mermaid of a bus and say, we friggin’ did that… TOGETHER!
Poirier Power, baby. It was 100% worth it.
HAPPY TEARS. 💙 This was the most challenging weekend but also the most rewarding… Know your heart’s dream and stick to it – Dive in, remove the fear and make decisions. Embrace the hard work and DIRT (in all senses of the word!) between you and what feels so damn good it makes you cry happy tears. We’re one VERY BIG step closer. #buslife
The bus painting process, steps:
PAINTING THE ROOF – Rust-oleum rusty brown primer & gloss white paint
We wanted to go two-tone so we painted the roof first. The great thing about painting the roof is that no one is really going to see it, so, it doesn’t have to be THAT perfect. We opted for a RUST-OLEUM BRAND primer (rust brown) and paint (gloss white), rather than automotive which is what we used for the body of the bus. We figured, it’s not at eye level, doesn’t matter as much.
We went through the same steps of prep you see below, but were not AS meticulous as we were with other areas of the bus closer to people’s view. This took two weekends, one to prep and prime, the other to paint and play around (you HAVE to take breaks sometimes…). 🙂
PREPPING THE BODY
1.) Rust removal (grinding, sanding, treatment)
2.) Sanding – scan for chipping, cracking or rough surfaces and sand/feather until smooth. BONDO work happens here, wherever needed. We had to cover a few dozen bolt holes that existed for use in it’s prior life.
3.) Surface Prep – Any and all silicone sealant applied to the exterior areas where we would be painting needed to be removed (ALL 18 windows had this!). We used a few different products to deal with leaks in a few seams early on, all of that needed to be cleaned off.
4.) Hardware – remove anything and everything (mirrors, lights, reflectors, etc.)
5.) Spot Check
6.) WASH – first wash and scrub with soap and water. Next, acetone wash (ESSENTIAL!) with towels, by hand.
7.) TAPING – ugh. Carefully tape around all the windows, rubber seals, etc.
8.) Spot check again
PAINTING THE BUS BODY – NAPA Cross/FIRE Refinish System
TOOLS: We used a mid-grade pretty affordable paint sprayer to apply the bus body paint.
PAINT: The lovely folks at Napa Auto were EXTREMELY helpful in answering our questions and helping to narrow down exactly which paint was right for our project. We went with the Cross/FIRE single stage overall refinish system. Single stage meaning paint and clear coat in one, so, more economical and still a REALLY nice gloss.
The system included a three part primer (primer, reducer and hardener) and a three part paint (paint, reducer, and hardener). They both used the same reducer but had different hardeners. They’re EXTREMELY toxic and we made sure to wear respirators before opening ANYTHING. You have to mix the primer and paint in the moment and only have 72 minutes to use the batch before it starts to thicken. Thankfully, each coat only took about 40 minutes to apply.
We couldn’t really SEE the finished product until the next day! But when we did, ahhh….
We started around 4:40 pm and ended after 8pm, in the dark, with only our headlights to guide us! haha. What an experience. We finished two coats of primer and two coats of paint total. If we were to do it again and have another HOUR or two of daylight, we would have done one or two more coats of paint, just as a bonus.
I walked down to the bus with Moose the morning after (it was Monday, so Ben was at work) and CRIED happy tears to myself as I removed the tape from around the windows, lights and hardware. I SMILED and said “I told you so” to my inner nay-sayer from the day before.