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Skoolie Life: On Tour in "Willbillys" the Converted Bus

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Mar 5, 2020

In February, road trippers and residents of the Southwest might have been surprised to see a wood-paneled, bright-yellow school bus - emblazoned front and back with the clever name Willbillys—tootling alongside them on desert byways. The bus's owners, Will Sutherland and Sabrina Hartley, who had converted the short bus into their home away from home, were on a combination vacation and book tour.

Skoolie Life

 They'd been stopping at various locations to sign copies of their new book, Skoolie!: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle, and meet with locals interested in learning more about skoolies and how to make one. One of Willbillys' last stops was in a high-desert tourist town, where Sutherland and Hartley pulled up next to the public library and a curious crowd. 

Skoolie Decal

The couple immediately hopped out and began regaling listeners with stories. Not only did they talk about their current skoolie, but also the three other skoolies Will had converted from school buses to accommodations through the years. A self-taught school bus converter, Sutherland documents his adventures on his Willbillys Instagram account. Magazines, including Road and Track and Popular Mechanics, have featured his conversions. Willbillys, which Hartley helped with from the get-go, is the latest project. 

Skoolie Front

Get Schooled in Skoolies 

What is a skoolie? A school bus that's been renovated and reconditioned to serve as a home (whether stationary or on wheels). In some ways, the original tiny home, skoolies are a perfect example of upcycling, living small and light on the land, and living large in a sustainable and affordable home. In fact, Sutherland says, "School bus conversions to mobile living spaces are a natural extension of the tiny house craze." 

Because a school bus already has a basic house-like structure—walls, floor, and a roof—the vehicles are a natural fit for converting into a moveable home; don't forget, they already have wheels. A school bus also has an engine and several operable windows. In other words, they provide an excellent opportunity for do-it-yourselfers, families, young or older couples, and adventurers of all ages to take to the road in a tiny home inexpensively customized to their needs.

Skoolie Touches

Bus Life X 4  

In his book Skoolie!, Sutherland documents the steps he's taken in converting several school buses into skoolies. He also profiles eight fellow skoolie fans and includes photos of bus interiors designed for simple living. 

Sutherland's first skoolie was a 1995 manual-transmission bus, which he painted blue, and eventually sold to a family from France looking to tour the United States and Mexico. He also worked on several upgrades to the blue bus, at the family's request, to make sure it was perfectly suited to their upcoming travel experience. (Sutherland continues to work on other skoolie commissions in his spare time.)

Another skoolie Sutherland renovated currently sits at the back of Sutherland and Hartley's property in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where it provides income as a five-star Airbnb. The skoolie, converted from a 1997, 28-foot International 3800, includes a sofa, table, wood-burning stove, and full bed. It has wood flooring and wood interior paneling. Guests pop into the hosts' bathroom and kitchen when they need to use those amenities. 

In the Airbnb skoolie, Sutherland used leftover lumber from his home renovation, along with old lumber from his family's pool deck for structural wood. He reused two bus seats for a table and booth, and leftover laminate wood flooring from his house for the sides and floor of the bus. A tiny wood-burning stove in the skoolie keeps things toasty during chilly nights and mornings. 

Hartley came into Sutherland's life shortly after the skoolie became an Airbnb. "She fell in love with my Airbnb bus at first sight," he recalls, and "described it as 'Pinterest-worthy.'" 

When Sutherland purchased his next bus, a 1995 Chevy 90-square-foot short bus with a 6.5L turbo diesel engine, Hartley joined in on the conversion. They called their new skoolie Woody, in part because of the wood panels on the exterior. "I had learned a lot from earlier conversions, including how to cut the bolts to get the seats out, and how to insulate the floor and walls to cut down on road noise," he says. 

The couple's current bus, Willbillys, is their most unique and sustainable roving tiny home to date. 

Skoolie Bed

At Home in the Willbilly 

Sutherland and Hartley were enjoying their inaugural journey in Willbillys when they arrived at the public library in that high-desert town. The eight-window bus had 177,000 miles on it when Sutherland purchased it. 

The couple removed the seats, rubber floor, and rotted wood subfloor before adding half-inch foam board insulation—as well as a vapor barrier. "We didn't need the vapor barrier, but I wanted to be extra cautious," Sutherland says. They also replaced old insulation in the bus's walls with foam board insulation and added insulation in the wheel wells to reduce road noise. 

Skoolie Solar Panels

Willbillys has a 400-watt system of four solar panels on the roof, which powers the stove, hairdryer, television, lights, and roof fan. The system also includes a 200-amp battery. An MPPT charge controller connects the solar panels and battery. A wood panel at the foot of the bed, on which they mounted the tv, opens to reveal the guts (wires, boxes, cables, levers) of the solar-powered system. 

Skoolie Shower

A propane tank heats hot water for the shower, which is simply a shower hose and shower head connected to the water tank at the back of the bus. Needless to say, the couple takes most of their showers in bathing suits. Also on top of the bus, reached via a metal ladder saved from outdoor playset Sutherland's mother bought him as a child, is a wood-platform roof deck, held firmly in place at the sides of the bus with metal supports. On the lower portion of the bus, on one side, are metal doors that open to reveal under-bus storage.  

Skoolie Counter

Inside, Sutherland worked his magic as a woodworker. He used reclaimed ash for the millwork, black walnut from downed trees as countertops, and local hickory for the shelving. He built the wood platform bed to include drawers for storage. The skoolie abounds with wood nooks, boxes, and shelves for additional storage, including a wardrobe that Hartley requested.

Skoolie Woodstove

Sutherland also made a wood drawer for firewood, which the couple can slide out for refilling. A Cubic Mini wood stove heats the interior during chilly nights. Cognizant of never transporting wood, which could be diseased or infected with beetles, from one place to another, they burn all of the wood they collect before moving to their next location.  

Willybillys also includes a stove and sink. A cooler packed with ice keeps food refrigerated. The skoolie doesn't have a bathroom, so the couple plans their overnight stops to coincide with state and national parks, where they can camp and use shower and restroom facilities.  

Skoolie Couch Area

"We could talk about our skoolie all day," says Sutherland, who relishes the difficult physical work and creative acumen required to transform an old school bus into a comfy tiny home on wheels. He also loves the name they came up with for their current bus, which he says reflects not only his name but also the couple's playful, West Virginia "hillbilly-like" way of life.

All photos courtesy of Camille LeFevre

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Camille LeFevre

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Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.