Kindling Podcast Episode 14: Will Sutherland
Herbs for Balancing Blood Sugar
by Deborah L. Balmuth, Carleen Madigan and Will Sutherland in Podcast
Tune in as Storey acquisitions editor Carleen Madigan speaks with author Will Sutherland about his book, Skoolie! How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle
In this episode of Kindling, author Will Sutherland talks about how he first started converting school buses into mobile living spaces, and how his book, Skoolie! can teach anyone to do it. If you can build Ikea furniture, Will says, you can build a skoolie.
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Full Podcast Transcript
This is Kindling, the Storey Publishing Podcast where we explore the spark that ignites a deep-rooted passion for sustainable living. I’m Deborah Balmuth, Storey’s publisher. From growing organic food and making herbal remedies to fermenting, weaving, and raising chickens, the authors we’ll meet will empower you with the skills and savvy they’ve gleaned from years of hands-on experience. In each episode of Kindling, you’ll learn what fuels these authors’ excitement and what they love most about creating books that share their expertise and enthusiasm with the world.
Will Sutherland is a pioneer in the world of the skoolie. “What is a skoolie?” you may ask. In short, it’s a school bus that you convert into a living space. As a self-taught school bus converter, Will Sutherland has some compelling reasons for you to consider a skoolie over a conventional camper or RV. For starters, school buses are extremely durable. They’re generally well-maintained. They tend to be relatively affordable. And to quote Will himself, “Owning a skoolie is a wonderful lifestyle.” Will’s new book is called appropriately enough, Skoolie! Storey’s acquisitions editor, Carleen Madigan, recently spoke with Will, who began by explaining the exciting blank slate that a used school bus presents.
You could literally lay it out on the inside however you’d like. Once you have the seats out, it is a big open area and you can put your bed, your kitchen, your bathroom anywhere you’d want in the vehicle. And then you could paint it any color. You can give it a name. There’s so many ways to make this your special piece of artwork. And the school bus is just such a good canvas to begin with when you’re building something that you want to have a lot of fun adventures in.
Why would someone choose a skoolie if they’re after this kind of more mobile lifestyle?
The advantages over an RV include the price right off the top. You could save a lot of money doing it yourself rather than purchase a $25,000 to $40,000 RV. And you also have a very durable vehicle that’s all metal. It’s not made of plywood. And it has a diesel motor. And they’re much more light on the sides. You can find them pretty cheap. They’re fun to build, and they’re unique. And just overall something that’s a whole different category than an RV. When you’re traveling in an RV, you know you’re in something that was designed for camping and to fit everything in exactly how they think you’ll need it to work for you. But with the school bus conversion, your skoolie can be exactly the way you want it to be and still feel like home.
What was the first skoolie you converted? Kind of talk us through that. And what inspired you to do that in the first place?
Well, I had purchased my home and spent a lot of time fixing it up. And once I finished those upgrades and repairs, I was in this high gear of building things and I wanted to keep going. And I found a school bus on Craigslist for $1,000. And I thought to myself surely this has to be useful in some way. And I wanted a weekend getaway vehicle. And I bought this school bus for $1,000, brought it home, put maybe 1,500 into it. And it was so cool. Everybody was excited. And someone suggested I try Airbnb. So I put the school bus on Airbnb, and it’s been there for almost seven years now. It’s a big hit, very popular. And all along, I was following some Instagram buses, some other folks, and there weren’t very many at this time. Now, there’s a ton. But we decided to get another short bus just for my girlfriend and I at the time, fixed it up, drove it to California and back. And after that trip, we knew that we always wanted to have a skoolie.
Walk us through that project a little bit and what the process is of converting a school bus. What’s involved with that? And if it’s something that, is that something an ordinary person can do themselves?
I firmly believe an ordinary person can create a school bus conversion. A skoolie is, you could be discouraged by looking at some of the nicest ones, but you don’t have to limit yourself to a perfect skoolie. You can build one to your capabilities and be very pleased with it I feel. But the most important step is picking the right school bus.
So the process begins with deciding how or what your use is going to be for the bus. If you want to travel on weekends, if you want to live in it full time with a family of four, or if you are working abroad or a traveling nurse, for instance, and you just want to feel like your home wherever you are, the first step is picking a bus that fits your needs.
And then there’s the demolition process, which in my opinion is one of the hardest processes because you have to take all the seats out of the bus. And these vehicles, as I stated earlier, are very durable. They’re designed to withstand so much use from kids and protect them from huge accidents, and they’re just built like tanks. So imagine taking a tank apart. The seats alone sometimes are attached with 11 to 15 bolts. So getting all the seats out is the main part of the demolition. And then there’s some other processes that you have to go through to make sure that you’re ready to build on the inside and that’s make sure there’s no rust and making sure that the vehicle is insulated correctly.
If you don’t have any experience building anything, if you have some experience removing a bolt, I think you have what it takes to at least get the seats out and use it as a spare room really, put your furniture in. So for anybody who’s discouraged about whether or not they can do a school bus conversion, I would just focus on what you can do already. If you can put something together from Ikea, then I think you’ll be okay doing even the most basic school bus conversion.
You mentioned that you found your first skoolie on Craigslist. That’s certainly one way to do it. If you were looking for a skoolie, are there other places to go to find one? And what are some of the things you would use to evaluate whether or not it’s a good school bus to buy?
I found my first bus on Craigslist, but the following buses I found on Facebook Marketplace, or Public Surplus, which is an online site and it’s an online location where bus garages and districts can sell their buses for pretty cheap. It’s an auction site basically.
The first thing you’d want to look at when you go to see a bus is obviously its overall condition. Don’t waste time looking at the details if it is rusty. You don’t want to mess with a bus that has obvious rust because your foundation of your house is the most important part. So if your foundation has rust on the floor and on the walls, then it’s not worth putting any effort into.
So the next thing I would focus on is the top speed of the bus. Many of them are designed to never go over 50 or 55 miles an hour. So you want to make sure that if you’re going to be traveling in the vehicle, you don’t want to be going so slow on the highway. So 65 miles per hour would be the ideal minimum speed that you can travel in the bus if you’re planning to use it for traveling. And observe any potential rust issues. And usually, you’ll find rust on the stairs or around the back door and up underneath on the frame. So if you can find one that doesn’t have any bad or any rust at all, ideally, and that will do 65 miles per hour, that in my opinion is a good foundation.
What are some of the nuts and bolts of skoolie life? Finding a place to boondock, for example, and maybe explain what boondocking is.
Boondocking is finding a spot that you can camp at for free or very cheap around the United States as you’re traveling. There’s some BLM land in Arizona, for instance, where I know some friends who stay there for long chunks of time, and they’re very happy. It’s the most freeing way to live is to be boondocking somewhere on public land and have a old bus that you converted. And if you have your whole family living there with you, sure there’s some compromises. The space obviously is nowhere near what people have compared to the average home size right now in the United States.
But there’s also the complications of fitting everything. If you have a family of four, for instance, do you do bunk beds? Are your kids going to grow a lot in the next two years? Or are they not going to want to live in a bus, also? I think that there’s obviously some challenges, but if you are excited enough and motivated enough it will work. And it’s definitely worked for so many people. And I’ve seen the amount of skoolies, full-time families living in skoolies increase it seems exponentially over the last few years. Just people changing their lifestyles up. And a lot of people from big cities, such as New York, they’re not afraid to live in a small space.
That’s a really good point. Some New York City apartments are pretty tiny. You know, I know part of the draw of living in a skoolie is this, the adventure and the ability to travel and be in different places. Have you seen it, the increase in people living in skoolies, do you think that’s a result of kind of housing insecurity and people not being able to afford a home?
I think a lot of folks have shifted from renting to owning a bus because a) they can’t own a house. They can’t qualify for one that is in their area or close to where they work. Or also, they just don’t want to own a house. They don’t want that huge responsibility. And they want to be able to move elsewhere. I have many friends who have made two or three moves in the last year and a half, and to keep renting and moving and renting and changing your lease and all that it’s very stressful for them. And I’ve spoke to a few people telling me that they would be fine just having a skoolie that they could just take different places and just find a good place to park. So I think it’s less about being in a skoolie and having your house wherever you go, but more about a good place to keep it wherever you’re going. As long as you have your home, where you have it placed is what matters, the surroundings and stuff like that.
It feels like there’s a real community that springs up around skoolie living and van life. Have you experienced that off the internet in real life? I mean, do you meet some of the people that you know from online, do you meet them in person?
Oh, certainly. I’ve met so many people who have a skoolie that have been traveling through the area and they know where we are and they intentionally come and stay at our place for one, two, three days. It’s an easy transition going from Instagram friends to in-person friends because being interested in skoolies alone so many other friend filters out. So you already are aligned in so many ways lifestyle-wise.
So being able to welcome somebody who I’ve never met in person but I know that they have a skoolie and it’s pretty cool and it has solar panels and you already know a good amount about them from following them on Instagram, it’s almost like a no-brainer, this person’s cool, I’d like to hang out with them. And in person it’s always, I’ve never had a situation where it was awkward or unusual. It’s always been better than I expected meeting folks in person.
You must get a reaction from people when you drive your skoolie down the street. Are people generally interested in learning about it and coming on board for a tour?
Every time we stop to get fuel. We could be at a gas station in the middle of Kansas with no one around and someone comes from around the corner, “Is that a school bus conversion?” And it’s so exciting to share the energy that we have about the school bus conversions and skoolies with these people. And it amazes me how many older people, people in their sixties, seventies, have a story from their childhood about a school bus conversion way back before they recalled skoolies. It was just a hippie bus or just a family who lived in the country who had an old church bus that they went camping in. So yeah, there’s non-stop attraction. No matter where you go with a skoolie, people will find you. It’s a magnet. And it’s exciting.
What is next for you? Are you going to renovate another skoolie? And how many skoolies have you done so far?
I have built four total. We are planning to renovate another skoolie. When we sold our recent bus, we had already purchased a shorter one because Sabrina, my fiancé, and I have decided that our lifestyle usually involves traveling to places that are pretty remote and a bigger bus is harder to maneuver in those areas. And also, my biggest nightmare is to get stuck somewhere and have to pay thousands of dollars for a big 18-wheeler style tow truck to come remove us, or even worse if we can’t get unstuck and the bus has to just stay there. So we’re downsizing to a shorter bus and I am converting it. I mean, that’s the plan. I’m planning to convert it to a four-wheel drive. So that’s going to be another big endeavor for me to figure that out. And I’m pretty excited about this process.
But the overall plan is to just continue working here at home. And we really want to just enjoy our skoolie. And that I think is something we haven’t done much of in the last few years because we’re always building them or trying to upgrade them or fit travel in with our busy work schedules. So we’re definitely just trying to enjoy the skoolie life.
That was Skoolie! author Will Sutherland speaking with Storey’s Acquisitions Editor, Carleen Madigan.
To learn more about Storey Publishing’s books and authors, visit storey.com. That’s storey.com. And if you have questions or comments about what you hear on Kindling, let us know. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it for this edition of Kindling, coming to you from the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. I’m Storey’s Publisher, Deborah Balmuth. Thanks for listening.
School buses that have been converted into mobile living spaces — known as skoolies — are a natural extension of the tiny house craze. Buses are not only easier and safer to drive than an RV, they provide a jump-start on the conversion process with frame, roof, and floor already in place. Experienced builder Will Sutherland, whose creative school bus conversions have been featured in Road and Track and Popular Mechanics, is behind the wheel of this alluring look at life on the road. In addition to profiles of eight fellow skoolie fans and stunning photos of bus interiors designed for simple living, Skoolie! does what no other book on the subject has — it offers a complete, step-by-step guide to the conversion process, from seat removal to planning layout and installing insulation, flooring, and furnishings that meet your needs.
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 15, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.