After years of working comfortable 9-5 jobs, Ben and Mande started a new adventure - buying a former school bus and turning it into their dream holiday home on wheels! Here's a look at their renovation journey.
Meet The Couple
This DIY journey began all the way back in 2011 when Ben and Mande returned to Michigan, where they were both born and raised. Neither could have known that the love of their life was just around the corner.
Ben had just finished up a summer of living in a school bus with his best friends, road-tripping and volunteering around the country. Mande, on the other hand, had been working as a school teacher in Utah, living the mountain life and exploring the west coast.
They Found Each Other
It was June of 2011 when Ben and Mande both resettled in Michigan and were coincidentally introduced while catching up with friends. "After meeting through a mutual friend, we exchanged stories and were immediately drawn to each other's sense of adventure and appreciation for the outdoors," they said.
The chemistry was obvious to everyone, and it wasn’t long before they were dating. Within four years, the adoring couple officially took the next step - they got married! They became Mr. and Mrs. Tucker, and both were working full-time in a comfortable home. But as time passed, Ben began to wonder if they were missing something.
Finding The Bus
Despite how happy he was with the love of his life, he couldn’t help but think back to the 18 months he had spent living in the renovated bus and traveling from place to place. He had loved life on the road, and living in a conventional home in one place 24/7 didn’t cut it. So he told Mande how he felt.
And despite their comfortable life in Michigan, she was game! So they began their search. "When we found a 24-foot school bus in excellent condition with low miles, we jumped at the opportunity," they explained. Now it was time to get to work… and they had a long road ahead.
First, We Paint
Ben and Mande set their sights on a 1992 International 3800 School bus that had been on the road for 25 years by that point. Despite how old it was, they were informed that it was only driven during summers, so mileage was lower than expected. And it was still in relatively good condition.
The couple quickly sealed the deal and parked their future camper in their driveway. They wasted no time, immediately getting to work on the exterior of the vehicle, cleaning it, and repainting it. The classic yellow cheese color wasn’t their style, and they repainted the bus in mint green and gave the roof a new white coat.
Pulling Out The Seats
Next, they had to strip practically everything out of the interior in preparation for building. Since they planned to include a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom in the eventual floor plan, Ben and Mande had to make sure that everything was removed to make space for the build.
They explained that they "wanted to start with a blank slate, so we thoroughly gutted the bus down to bare bones." They secured the right power tools for the job and got to work removing row upon row of dusty leather seats. It was an exhaustive task, but the pair were prepared.
Once they’d taken out the most obvious obstacles (the seats), it was time to work on the rest. "We removed the seats, rubber mat flooring, and the bulky heating and AC units," they elaborated. "We were left with a blank slate of bare sheet metal to build from."
But not everything on the bus was removed. For example, Ben and Mande chose to leave the school bus windows as they were. With a long stretch of windows on both sides of the bus, the two nature lovers would get plenty of natural sunlight during the days, as well as nearly 360 views of the scenery around them.
A New Name
They also left the ceiling intact, unlike many skoolie builders, since a 6-foot roof was all the height they felt they needed. Next up was the insulation they needed to install on the walls and floors to keep their house bus warm and comfortable. But there was also a different kind of task to undertake…
They wanted a name for their new vehicle, so they set to brainstorming. It didn't take long before they found the perfect moniker: Fern. "Mande teaches second grade and was reading Charlotte's Web at the time," they recalled. "The name Fern stuck out and felt right for our bus."
Dividing It Up
Now they had a name and a fully insulated bus. Things were looking good! The motivated pair then decided to start allocating tasks based on their strengths and talents, with Ben shouldering much of the electrical installations, plumbing, and carpentry, while Mande worked on the design, decor, and upholstery of the interior.
"We were both super impressed by each other's hustle to get everything done no matter what it took," the pair happily explained. "We certainly didn't go into this project having every skill mastered, but we were open and willing to learn and try constantly to overcome obstacles along the way."
The Most Important Seat
Though the couple was laser-focused on renovating the bus into a liveable space, its capacity to travel was equally important. The entire reason they had bought the bus was to have a little home that they could take on the road for weekend getaways and vacations.
This meant they needed to spend a good amount of time ensuring their new bus was drivable. "I'm dissecting this console up at the helm and hoping I won't regret it," Ben shared to their followers. "I hope to replace all the sheet metal with wood to eliminate rattling/road noise."
Time To Frame
Just behind the driver's seat, they also had set to work on framing the rest of the furniture on the bus. Like many skoolie owners, Ben and Mande were making the practical and economic decision to build the majority of their furniture. And it was up to Ben to bring their ideas to life.
In such a small area, it’s vital to use the space in the most efficient way. Custom-made furniture is essential as it ensures that all the furniture fits into the space in the right way. So Ben began building the frames for their sofas, as well as extra storage beneath them, while Mande set to sewing upholstery.
And The Master Bedroom
Like most typical skoolie builds, Ben and Mande had a conventional but effective floor plan in mind: the living room would go behind the driver's seat, followed by the kitchen, with the bedroom at the very back of the bus against the emergency exit doors. The first step in working on the bedroom was framing their future bed.
"We're currently trimming out the bed area," Ben said. "The shelf-looking thing is part of the bed platform and will be connected to the starboard side once I'm ready to give up use of the back door. It's been my main door during construction, and I'll be bummed to see it blocked off."
There was no denying that those first months of renovation were chaos, and their workspace reflected that. But despite how chaotic things looked on the surface, Ben and Mande were making steady progress. In fact, they finished the entire build over the course of 7 months while still juggling 9-5s.
But at this point in the process, they were still working on the bones of their camper. As can be seen above, the living room space was opposite the slowly-forming kitchen. "I'm about to build a wall to separate the bed and living area," Ben had reported. "Hopefully, it won't make our short bus feel any shorter."
The Right Color Scheme
We know Ben was sweating over the carpentry and construction, but what about Mande? Well, she was hard at work planning the aesthetics of the house. She had already finished complete sets of cushions and curtains for all of the windows and had even decided on the entire color palette of the home.
Ben also took to Instagram to update their followers on her progress, writing, "Mande is throwing up some paint on the interior trim and loving the clean look." She had decided that a light color scheme, including mostly white walls, would make Fern look and feel cleaner, lighter, and more spacious.
Sinks and Faucets
Back in the kitchen, Ben was making progress. He had finished framing the kitchen cabinetry, installed the vitally important oven/stove appliance, and secured the faucet that would go above the sink. Unfortunately, this drew attention to their missing sink, as they were still in the process of securing their water supply.
"We're dreaming about sinks and faucets over here," they joked."Water is plumbed to our faucet and outdoor shower, supplied by 25 gallons of freshwater and captured by a 25-gallon greywater system. The outdoor shower is plumbed through a tankless water heater for on-demand hot water."
Things Get Electric
By now, the DIY duo had installed all of the plumbing, making the kitchen and bathroom almost complete. They could wash up, brush their teeth, and clean their dishes without problems! Now the next clear step was finishing their electrical system, and they’d be so close to done.
So what was their plan for electricity? "We're powered by both 12 and 120 V electricity," they explained. "On the road, our house battery and inverter keeps our phones, computers, and our fantastic vent fan running for up to a week while off the grid." Liquefied petroleum gas would power everything else.
Since the electricity and plumbing were pretty much done, it would seem that their compact kitchen would be complete. But Ben still had to build and fit a solid set of doors for all the cabinets! After all, the last thing they wanted was all of their food and ingredients flying off the shelves while they were traveling.
Ben called in Mande’s dad for help, as it was taking longer than inspected. But it was worth the wait, as these varnished cabinets, with their rocks for doorknobs, were both extremely practical and added a rustic, unpolished touch to the overall modern and stylish look of the bus.
On To The Bathroom
By now, Fern was almost completely liveable, and Ben and Mande could barely contain their excitement. Now they just needed to complete the finishing touches on those rooms and work on the bathroom. "This is where the toilet will go! Remember: we're keeping it simple," they shared.
"With a short bus, we don't have much space, so every square inch is valuable real estate," they elaborated further. "This has led us to do an outdoor shower. We haven't designed it yet, but we're dreaming of a simple shower curtain with a removable shower head on the exterior of Fern. That means this is a warm-weather rig for now!"
A Scenic Second Floor
But there was another space in the skoolie (or should we say, on the skoolie) that Ben and Mande included in their design. They added a deck to the roof of the bus! "Climbing to the deck gives us a whole new perspective and an elevated view," they gushed. It would be perfect for relaxing, sunbathing, and enjoying the scenery.
"We can easily install four posts that extend over the deck, allowing us to swing our hammock high up in the sky," they added. Not to mention, it worked as an extra storage space for their paddleboards, which took up a lot of room but were a must-have item for summer getaways.
The Final Look
By now, Ben and Mande had completely transformed the vehicle from a run-down old school bus to a gorgeous and liveable little home on wheels. The construction was complete, and Mande had tied everything together with a beautifully designed interior.
As can be seen above, the new build was unrecognizable. At the front of the bus were two sofa benches decorated with Mande’s cushions, as well as a fully-equipped kitchen and a complete bedroom right behind it. The bathroom was also complete, and Fern was ready to hit the road.
But let’s take a closer look at this newly finished interior! The kitchen was perfect, with light poplar wood paneling for the butcher block countertops and cabinets and white accents to match the walls and ceilings of the bus. It was airy and spacious, perfect for the small area.
When it came to the floors, the couple chose darker Acacia wood over poplar wood to add some contrast to the rest of the interior. Not only that, but it helped to cover up the inevitable dirt and scuffs after months of use. "Dirt and dust and stinky boots are an endless battle," the couple explained.
Fern On The Road
It’s no surprise that as soon as Fern was finished, Ben and Mande jumped at the chance to take her out on the road. While some skoolies struggled with the learning curve of driving such a large vehicle, Ben already had a year and a half of experience driving a live-in school bus.
This made driving much easier, but thankfully, Fern wasn't particularly hard to drive anyway. This made everything so much more accessible, and in their eyes, their bus was the "perfect balance of being a large and spacious home, while also being maneuverable and compact enough to take us almost anywhere."
Exploring In Style
From the beginning of their build, Ben and Mande had dreamed about the day they could take Fern on the road and explore the continent. Once she was done, they wasted no time hitting the road - and soon enough, they had taken her to South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Canada, amongst many other places!
The couple gushed about their adventures in the great outdoors and meeting like-minded travelers. "We knew there was so much unbelievable beauty and solitude to be found out there. So many fascinating people to meet and stories to exchange, and we wanted more of it."
Hitting The Road
Now that we know how it was driving Fern, what was actually like to live on the bus? For Ben and Mande, it was exactly what they had wanted. "Comfort can lead to complacency, but adventure is deliberate," Ben explained. "Taking life on the road is our way of breaking out of habits and shifting momentum in a new direction."
This new style of living in traveling was completely in line with their values. "We're able to eliminate the burden of distractions and let hectic routines fall away," the couple said. "In this simplicity, we find that freedom comes to the forefront... We find that we value relationships and experiences over things."
Out In The Wild
For Ben and Mande, one of the best (and worst) parts of being on the road was living hand in hand with nature. "In a small space, you're more tuned in with nature," they shared. "We adapt to the natural rhythms of day and night and the mood of the weather."
"Living in our bus, we're a bit more impacted by the rainstorms and wind gusts, the heat waves and cold snaps," they elaborated. "For the most part, this is an absolutely positive thing. However, when it's rainy for long periods, everything can become damp, and we find ourselves confined inside."
And it wasn’t just the dampness they had to deal with. Since the couple frequently showered outside, constant rainstorms made it difficult to keep their hygiene in check. So when summer came back around and things heated up, they took the opportunity to wash as much as they could, particularly after long hiking trips.
They had a pretty impressive set up, too - it included a tankless water heater and removable showerhead, not to mention the necessary shower curtain to shield them at public campsites. When they were done, they used the significant storage space beneath their bed to stow everything away.
The Best Part
At the beginning of their DIY journey, Ben and Mande looked forward to exploring new places from the comfort of their house bus. But it wasn't the scenery that they appreciated most. "Our favorite aspect of being on the road and living in the bus is meeting people we wouldn't have the opportunity to get to know otherwise."
"The bus is unique enough that people are drawn to approach it, pop their head in to say hello, and chat for a while," they elaborated about their roadie experiences. "People everywhere have been warm and kind and hospitable. We're so refreshed and optimistic because of the people!"
Her Standout Features
It's safe to say there are so many aspects of skoolie life that Ben and Mande had come to appreciate. In the case of Fern, her best feature was her ever-changing nature. "Our favorite feature is that she's always in progress, a perpetual state of modification," they said.
"As we spend more time living in the bus, we find little things to add or change," the couple said. "Since we built everything with our own two hands, we know her ins and outs and are capable of giving her little renovations whenever needed. We love that Fern continues to be our blank canvas and is happy to adapt with us."
Sawyer Joins The Family
It's a good thing Fern is always changing because their little family is too! Just one year after they started their DIY skoolie adventure, Mande and Ben announced that they were pregnant! "We are excited to bring a sweet boy into the world this spring," they shared on Instagram.
And in no time at all, their baby boy, Sawyer, was born. The young parents were over the moon and couldn’t wait to spend their family holidays with Sawyer on their house bus. Though things were a little more cramped, it was plenty of fun bathing him in Fern’s kitchen sink and rocking him to sleep on the custom-made sofas.
Their Goals Are The Same
Of course, bringing a baby into the family dynamic meant they had to spend much less time on Fern - but it didn't slow down any of their plans to explore the country. "Life looks very different than when we first started this journey. But one thing is for sure: adventure is something our grateful souls crave," they shared.
"What started out the two of us is now the three of us, and we still have the same goals: live simply enough to have it all," Ben and Mande told their followers. "Travel, spontaneity, stability, comfort, freedom, balance... There is very little relaxing to be done when there is such a big world to discover!"
Let The Adventures Continue
And by the time Sawyer's first birthday came around, the happy trio had already gone on plenty of adventures. But it was clear that they needed more room for their growing family, so they officially said goodbye to their beloved Fern and purchased a more suitable skoolie, dubbed "Fern2!"
Ben and Mande are starting all over again, transforming Fern2 into the perfect family adventure mobile, including a complete bathroom this time. "It'll look pretty different but hopefully feel similar and more convenient," the couple promised. We know we can't wait to see the finished result!