Exterior Painting

Painting the bus to anything other than school bus yellow was a high priority for us. In some states, your private school bus can’t even pass inspection if it’s still the original yellow. We didn’t find any rules about it in our home state of Vermont but we were eager to make it look less like a school bus and more like our home on wheels.

In this post:
Removing Reflectors
Removing Rear Lights & Repairing Holes
Priming & Painting

Removing the Reflectors

Removing the reflective stickers on our bus was probably our least favorite part the painting process. These stickers lined the lower sides of our bus and outlined the emergency windows, the emergency hatch, and the back door.

We used razor blades from a utility knife to get underneath the stickers but after baking in the sun for 10 years, they did not come off in one piece like we had hoped. Instead, they mostly crumbled and we had to scrape to get every tiny bit off.

This was very frustrating and time-consuming. We tried using Goo Gone to see if it made removing the stickers any easier but it didn’t seem to help.

This was one of those tasks we were happy to hand off to visiting friends asking if there was anything they could help with on the bus at the time. Sorry and most of all, THANK YOU!

Removing the Rear Lights & Repairing the Holes

The rear top red and yellow lights are strobe lights that can no longer be functional in order to pass inspection. There are a few ways to go about this: disconnect them, paint them, or remove them. We could have spray painted them black like the front strobe lights but we ultimately decided to remove them altogether.

The outside component of the lights were simple covers and the inside components are like little bowls that hold the light bulbs. Removing these pieces was simple because they were only held on with screws. However, the screws on the visors above the lights were hard to reach and did not want to budge so we had to use an angle grinder to cut them off.

Then there were big, gaping holes where the lights once were. We repeated the process that we did with the side stop sign: epoxy metal sheets on the inside of the bus and patch up the outside with Bondo. We sanded down the Bondo to get it smooth and ready for painting.

While we’re looking at the pictures in this section, it’s worth noting that we could also no longer keep the lit up “school bus” sign on the front and back of the bus. These were lit up by a row of light bulbs behind the sign. We removed the lights and spray painted the signs black.


Now this was a process! You truly don’t realize how much surface area there is on a school bus body until you’re tasked with sanding it all down. And ours is only a short bus! Times like this really make me feel for the long bus crowd.

We read conflicting opinions about whether sanding the bus before painting was really necessary and they were all pretty passionate. We figured we’d rather be safe than sorry and that sanding the bus would only help the primer and paint adhere better and last longer.

We used hand sanders for the rail guards and other hard-to-reach sections and Travis’ electric orbital sander on the bigger, flat sections. While we are aware that proper sanding entails using larger grain sandpaper and then re-sanding with finer grain sandpaper, sanding the bus once was more than enough of a task for us so we just used the paper we already had.

Tip: Hand sanders can make sanding by hand easier because they have a handle and a flat surface over which you can secure pieces of sandpaper. Orbital sanders have a flat velcro-like surface to attach special round pieces of sand paper. This round sandpaper has holes it in that should be lined up with the holes in the surface of the orbital sander. The holes allow the orbital sander to vacuum the paint dust into a collection bag so that the dust does not collect under the sand paper and inhibit proper sanding. Remember to change out the dust collection bag regularly.

We found that the best method for removing yellow paint from the many rivets on the bus was to use a wire brush drill bit. This bit was too rough to use on the rest of the bus as it would have scraped up the metal instead of sanding off the paint but on the rivets, it was harmless and very efficient. A wire brush drill bit is also exactly what you need to scrape off rust so it’s worth buying.

Priming & Painting

We carefully applied Rustoleum Metal Primer with a roller and a paint brush before masking the bus and finishing off the priming. We also used the Rustoleum metal primer that comes in a spray can so that we could spray hard-to-reach spots (see gray lines on the face of our bus below).

We decided to use Rustoleum Paint but we didn’t love any of the stock colors for an entire bus so we decided to mix our own! We bought a gallon of “Smoke Gray,” a gallon of “Gloss White,” a quart of “Royal Blue,” and a paint mixer to attach to the drill. The target color was a slate-blue but it came out more of a baby blue. At first, it was a bit startling because we were going for more gray than blue and it definitely came out more blue than gray. That’s what you get for mixing in a blue bucket!

Before the paint was ready to apply, we heeded advice to add a hardener to it which increases the paint’s hardness and dry time. This is particularly helpful for automotive applications. We used a roller to paint the flat surfaces and a gravity fed air paint sprayer to paint everywhere else. This is where we ran into a problem: the paint was coming out in splatters, not spraying well, and leaving an undesirable texture on the bus. This showed us that it was clearly too viscous. The remedy was adding some paint thinner, or acetone, to the mixture. The paint flowed a lot more easily and sprayed much better.

We cleaned and primed the roof before rolling on “Gloss White” Rustoleum paint. We taped off the BlueBird bird logos on both sides, which took a lot of effort due to their wavy shape. We also taped off the top edge of the black streaks on both sides.

Shop This Post

Utility Knife
Angle Grinder
Hand Sander
Orbital Sander
Wire Brush Drill Bit
Rustoleum Metal Primer
Rustoleum Paint
Air Paint Sprayer
Paint Hardener
Paint Thinner

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