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 skoolie home on wheels. Here’s how to repaint your converted school bus.

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

Removing the Reflectors

Removing the reflective stickers on our bus was our least favorite part or 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. However, 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. We have seen other school bus conversions have success with heat guns, which unfortunately, is not a tool we have.

This was a task we were happy to hand off to friends who asked if there was anything they could help with on the conversion. We’re sorry and most of all, THANK YOU!

Removing the Rear Lights & Repairing the Holes

To pass vehicle inspection in our state, the top rear red and yellow strobe lights can no longer be functional. 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 all together.

The outside component of the lights are 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.

There were then big, gaping holes where the lights once were. Patching the holes was the same process as when we removed the side stop sign. We used epoxy on metal sheets on the inside of the bus and patch up the outside with Bondo. Lastly, the Bondo was sanded to get it smooth and ready for painting.

The vehicle inspection rules also mandated removing the lit up “school bus” signs on the front and back of the bus. These were lit up by a row of light bulbs behind the signs. 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 skoolie body until you’re tasked with sanding it all down. And ours is only a short bus! Times like this really make us feel for the long bus crowd.

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

Update (1+ year down the road): This turned out to be very TRUE. After some time, parts of the bus that we did not sand as well as others (such as nooks and crannies) are starting to peel. We will have to touch them up. If you want to avoid this, sand well and thoroughly the first time!

We used hand sanders for the rail guards and other hard-to-reach sections. Travis’ electric orbital sander was perfect for the bigger, flat sections. While we are aware that proper sanding entails using large grain sandpaper and then re-sanding with finer grain sandpaper, sanding the bus once was more than enough of a task for us. We decided to use the sandpaper we already had and leave it at that. This did not lead to any further issues.

Sanding is better than not sanding but you don’t have to sand the same spot multiple times or with different grain sand paper.

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.

The best tool for removing yellow paint from the many rivets on the bus is a wire brush drill bit. This bit is too rough to use on the rest of the bus as it scrapes up the metal instead of sanding off the paint. However, it was very efficient on the rivets. A wire brush drill bit is also exactly the tool 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 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 the gray lines on the face of our bus below).

Rustoleum Paint is a great option because it is oil-based and durable. However, we didn’t love any of the stock colors for the entire bus so we decided to mix our own! We highly recommend this process.

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. That’s what we get for mixing in a blue bucket!

Before the paint was ready to apply, we heeded advice to add a hardener. This increases the paint’s hardness and dry time and is particularly helpful for automotive applications.

We used a roller to paint the flat surfaces and a gravity fed air paint sprayer, which is powered by an air compressor, to paint everywhere else. This sprayer was only about $30 at our local hardware store and we know someone who owns an air compressor. If you can spray, spraying is definitely the way to go.

This is where we ran into a problem: the paint was coming out in splatters. It was not spraying well and leaving an undesirable texture on the bus. This showed us that it was clearly too viscous. The remedy was to add some paint thinner, or acetone, to the mixture. You don’t need much, so buy a small can and read the directions for dilution carefully. Once we added acetone, the paint flowed a lot more easily and sprayed much better!

Tip 1: Hardener and paint thinner are the two key additives you need to add to non-automotive paint for the best application. We used Majic Catalyst Hardener, available at Tractor Supply or Amazon, and acetone, which can be bought at nearly any hardware store.

Tip 2: Be sure to buy an empty paint can and mix enough paint to fill this can at the end. This can be used for touch ups in the future!

We cleaned and primed the roof before rolling on “Gloss White” Rustoleum paint. However, there were some parts of the roof that we didn’t want to be white. We taped off the BlueBird 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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