Day 10184

I'm stepping it up, slowly.

Though the bus is still parked in the parent's backyard, I have been using it like it is deep in the woods. Every time I'm out here exercising the bus, I'm getting more proficient at living out of it. Tonight I made dinner (a nice dish of rice, peas and scrambled eggs) on the wood-stove, which I started with a single match. I ran the palm-sander and charged some drill batteries off of the inverter. I am composing this entry on my laptop over internet from my phone's data plan. Why pay for phone and internet when I can just pay for phone? Tonight is supposed to be pretty cold, down to 17F by the morning, so we'll see how well it stays warm. Although I'm 150' from the barn, I am self-sufficient. I might as well be on the future property, lounging after a day of milling trees or running the backhoe.

I'm also listening to streaming radio over the bus's freshly wired set of speakers... a few weeks ago my neighbor, Joe, graciously donated his old delivery van's radio set up. He came over and helped me wire it, having done a few before. The bus has six speakers in the ceiling, and I had previously identified the harness which a radio could plug into. I was coming up short finding a radio that would fit the 12-lead plug, though.

Joe pointed out the markings on the wires were relatively standard across the industry, and promptly began cutting off plugs and splicing. Given my background, working on helicopters, I was cringing inside thinking; "But- but- I'm sure there's a wiring diagram out there somewhere!" I should never have doubted him though, as his Yankee-ingenuity and gut instincts led to a successful first trial when we plugged the stereo's aux cord into my phone!

Thanks Joe, Cindy & Tommy!

During a family vacation last week I was able to complete a few books I'd been working on. David McCollough's The Wright Brothers, which was a quick, inspiring read. The drive and determination of the Wright Brothers is admirable; and they did it all on a limited budget. Also completed was another book by Joel Salatin; You Can Farm. Where Folks, This Ain't Normal was a collection of rants about the agricultural industry, You Can Farm is practically a bible, an operator's manual, for how to set up a small commercial farm. The book is a collection of farming knowledge accumulated by one man through hard work, pain and patience. I took a lot of notes and dog-eared many pages. Currently reading Mortgage Free! and Deep Survival.

Current projects;

- The search for land continues.

- Put the fairings back on for the speaker wire harness, and build a shelf for the radio.

- Backhoe tower rebuild, hydraulic flush and filter change, engine oil change, fuel filter change...

- I need a stopper for the kitchen sink; doing dishes out here is proving challenging. Bus-life problems.

The bus is coming into it's own, as well. Like any fuel-drinking, air-breathing vehicle, it has it's own quirks and character. The headlights have always perplexed me, as the switch doesn't seem to have much influence in the off position. The headlights turn on and off as they please. This evening as I was getting the fire going and running the motor to recharge the battery bank, I stepped outside to get a load of wood, only to have the bus illuminate my way up the icy hill! Thanks, bus! Like a Blackhawk helicopter, a temperamental tractor or a Stephen King-inspired gasoline lawnmower, vehicles have souls and should be treated accordingly. My views are similar to those of Tennessee Steinmetz. Thank them for their work, and don't get mad at them when they break (unless they clearly did it to make you angry.) Coming back with a book and some firewood, the headlights came on again for my walk down the hill. Thanks, bus.

Day 10152

Hey, I'm still kicking. After a mission with the unit which took me across the country for a few weeks, I've been relatively busy with work and drill. Now that daylight savings has taken effect, I can say goodbye to after-work projects at home outside without a light-set. In the meantime, on mission, I've been doing a lot of reading and scheming. I think I've mentioned before that missions usually give me a chance to reflect and plan the next stage.

Current projects;

1. Rebuild the backhoe - this greasy, knuckle-busting project has dragged on as I procrastinate and take care of other things. I want it done before snow falls. I need new pins for the stabilizers, and will need a good amount of worn hoses remade.

2. Find land - In addition to having automated searches on Bean Group's website, I have posted a want ad on craigslist outlining my basic requirements, which has netted a few responses. I have been searching for more than a year; this process is grueling! I will hold out until I find something suitable.

Future projects (for the winter;)

1. Fix minor issues on the Case 444 (hydraulic leaks and the like)

2. Re-engine the Case 446 parts tractor, and turn it into a working machine.

3. Go from amateur chainsaw operator to journeyman chainsaw operator by working with dad on felling dead trees

The books I've been reading include Five Acres and Independence, originally published in the 1940's by M.G. Kains, as well as Folks, This Ain't Normal and now You Can Farm, both by "Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer" Joel Salatin. I thought this guy was slightly kooky before reading his book (he was the farmer casually cutting chicken's throats in Food, Inc.,) now I've confirmed that he is in fact kooky and I like him a lot!

Folks This Ain't Normal is a collection of essays and rants about the state of our society, agriculture, the environment, government regulation, social norms, and how they are all intimately related. One thing Salatin focused on was the absurdity of the food police in our current era, where a mother selling ceviche online without a license is charged a fine and has to appear to court. The same organization saying that selling un-inspected food is wrong or dangerous, the USDA, is the same organization that says it's safer to trim chicken's beaks, feed ground remains of dead cows to herbivorous cows in a factory farm, and approves of high-fructose corn syrup and genetically modified foods.

The United States has become detached from it's food production. Being a farmer isn't the noble, common, occupation it once was... it is now done by a small minority who are just eking by managing large-scale factory plots. We have become accustomed to having fruits and vegetables out of season, thanks to the petroleum burned to ship food across the planet. We take mothers to court for selling (probably delicious) food to people. I wasn't exposed to this dissonance until my family had food-related issues in the past few years; now I read the ingredients list on everything. I am inclined to believe that the majority of health issues faced by Americans are directly related to the poor quality of food we consume.

I also have a theory that the survivalist movement is a wayward return to a farming homestead. If you really break it down, a farmer is the ultimate survivalist. A farmer has everything he needs to not just survive, but to thrive on his land. There is no need to have a bug-out bag or bug-out vehicle to get to your bug-out location (which everyone else is probably headed toward anyway) when your homestead has everything you need.

Stay tuned; hopefully we'll have the backhoe up and running over Veteran's day weekend. Maybe I'll buy some land.

Day 10111

Over the past week I've closed a lot of loops and finished a bunch of small projects. I'm running out of things to do on the bus! Last week I spent a few nights sleeping in it, and found it to be very comfortable. Most of Day 10109 was spent in the bus, cooking reading and doodling. Good lounge day.

I'm skilled at procrastinating something I don't want to do, and accomplishing a lot in other areas. Lately I've been putting off the backhoe rebuild (a greasy, knuckle-busting job) in favor of cleaning up the barn before winter and getting rid of things I don't use or need. A few large bins went to the Salvation Army.

A quick after-work project was replacing the worn-out batteries on the F350 with the bus's old batteries, which was brought on by the truck not having enough power to get started the other day. I had intended to replace the old beaten terminals on the truck's battery cables, but the project proved to be quite daunting, and I elected to not fix what wasn't broken. With the assistance of a set of channel-locks used as a hammer, I got the beaten old terminal ends over the new battery lugs. Whatever.

She lives! The wire harnesses were neatened up as well as I could; they're a mess from the cab swap. I also noted the starter solenoid is a massive blob of rust, and imagine that could be the source of it not starting from time to time. I'll replace that when I find some motivation. Fun fact; the new batteries are a little taller, and now the hood doesn't close all the way! I can still get one dragster pin's hair-pin in. Good enough.

Meanwhile, in the bus, I neatened up some of the DC accessory connections...

... finished another little light's mounting bracket...

... and installed the trim piece I had removed from the fireplace in front of the cabinets.

Saturday I cut some scrap siding into little triangles, and used some aluminum bar stock to make much needed book-ends.

I painted the bookends with leftover bus paint as little mountains. Now my small bus book collection is a miniature mountain range. 

I took a piece of Maple I had purchased a few weeks ago, and made a coat rack with a bunch of cheap cast-off (i.e. they still do their job but they aren't as pretty) Shaker pegs. The pegboard was installed in the mudroom; also known as "the staircase" or "the area immediately to the right of the driver's seat," if you want to get technical.

Break for lunch; rice and peas on the wood-stove, with some re-heated percolated coffee. Mmm.

Then on Day 10110, I took on the metal panel for the chimney's window. This piece will serve several purposes; it will be a structural support to the chimney hanging out the window, keep the rain and snow from getting in, and keep the warm air from getting out. I also wanted to make it in such a way that removing it wouldn't be a nightmare (so nothing too permanent.) My starting piece was a steel shelf, acquired surplus from a certain government building's scrap metal bin. The shelf had 3/4" tabs that I wanted to retain, as I could inset the piece into the window's recess in the bus's sheet-metal. 

After some measuring, guesstimating and eyeballing, I drew out what I needed on the piece, then cut it to shape with the angle grinder. See the new 3/4" tab?

Next I bent my new 3/4" tab up. At work we have a large tool to do this quickly. At home I have vise-grips and patience.

My piece cut to shape, I measured the top, bottom, left and right limits of where the stovepipe wanted to sit, coming out the window. The pipe has a five inch diameter, but climbs out the window at an angle, so the up-down measurement was closer to six inches. I used the four inch hole saw to cut out the center, then finagled the tin snips into the hole to cut twelve tabs all the way around.

In a technique that I unabashedly stole from the Splitting Elm blog, I bent the tabs in and out, mounted the panel into the window-frame, then screwed the pipe into the hole. I like how they did this. I got lucky, here; it fit without much adjustment.

Finally, to literally top it all off, I found a sharp looking cap on eBay, made in Maine, USA. It arrived yesterday, and I installed it after work today. Four feet of stovepipe past the exterior elbow gives me enough draft that I'm not filling the cabin with smoke when I start a fire, AND no longer setting off my smoke detector, which seems to be a slightly louder version of the INCOMING alarm at Jalalabad.

I'm really happy with how this came out. What used to be an oddly painted bus with furniture is now clearly a small home.

Day 10102

I spent most of the day working my DC accessory bus.  I now have three electrical systems, all drawing power from the same shared battery bank.

The first is the bus's 12 volt DC system, which the bus was born with at the bus factory. I can turn this system on with the bus key to accessory or ignition, and I can use the cabin dome lights, but I really don't have the ability to plug in anything else. It draws 6 or 7 amps to run headlights and some other bus electronics. The headlights also may or may not turn on when I turn the key to accessory; it's totally random, mysterious, and another 2-3 amps when they're on.

The second electrical system is the 120 volt AC system, which is what the inverter produces. With the inverter I have more lighting, but more importantly the ability to run power tools. When I run the 2000 watt inverter, I try to load it and charge as much as I can for efficiency's sake. The inverter draws about 3 amps running with no load, and makes a humming noise (which is why I put a cabinet over it.)

And now I have a third system, which I'm calling the DC accessory bus, which is another 12 volt DC system wired right off of the battery bank. This system will be seeing the most normal day-to-day use of any system; on it I have the water pump and a several new cabin lights. I wired the system with 2.1mm jacks, much like you'd see for charging a laptop. With two bright 3W LED spotlights, I'm showing a current draw of 0.5 amps, so I could run these lights for a bit more than a month straight before I'd drain the battery bank.

I used a six bank Blue Sea Systems circuit breaker panel, and a bunch of 2.1mm male and female fittings I got off Amazon. Again, when you need something for a bus build that is somewhere between an automotive product and a house product, the marine supply stores online seem to have what you need! I spent most of the morning cutting wire and soldering terminals. I mounted the whole assembly on a sheet of scrap acrylic sheet cut to size, for ease of installation in the cabinet.

The panel mounted in the cabinet, and illuminated by a 3 watt LED it is supplying with power. I did manage to blow an auto-style fuse going into the circuit breaker panel by crossing some wire ends. Oops.

The DC panel next to the AC inverter. The new DC bus will be used for low-current day to day stuff like lights and the water pump. The inverter's AC system will be used for charging tool, laptop and phone batteries, and running power tools.

I made several "extension cords" today, and secured them along the ceiling with panel screws and small plastic lamps I had lying around. 

I crafted mounting brackets for the little spotlights out of some scrap aluminum I had; basically a hole for a panel screw, a 15 degree bend made with vise-grips, and a tab that the light will get screwed onto (I need to buy some screws small enough tomorrow.) Here's the dining area's spotlight, which illuminates the table nicely.

In the bedroom I now have a reading light.

And in the back of the bus, I set a light to illuminate the open drawers of the toolbox.

I neglected to mention in yesterday's post that I added a smoke and carbon monoxide detector at the behest of my medics. The detector is sufficiently obnoxious, and I placed it above the bed. I also bought a bunch of ABC (dry chemical) fire extinguishers, and mounted a second extinguisher at the back door of the bus. I take fire prevention seriously, and the question "what happens if this fails?" enters my mind frequently while I'm working. ABC fire extinguishers are good for fighting almost every kind of fire, but not great. A CO2 extinguisher and a foam extinguisher, for fighting liquid fuel fires, would be a good thing to have when I'm out in the sticks.

Best part of the new lights; a mere 0.5 amps drawn with two of the lights on.

Day 10101

As I right this, I find the bus is uncomfortably warm... because it now has wood heat.

One of the frequent comments I heard at drill last weekend was "Wow, I couldn't do this..." I found that statement to be the most disturbing... even more disturbing then all the references about me dying in the bus like Alexander Supertramp after eating wild potato roots. I consider my audience to be a bunch of creative problem-solvers, and that's all you need to know to do something like this.

When I hear this disturbing phrase, it makes me think the person isn't confident in their own math, carpentry or electrical skills, or their ability to learn new things. I've used high school physics that I know I had learned at some point, but had neglected to maintain (14 year old Aaron, science geek and Trekkie, would be ashamed that this is what he had become) and had to teach myself. Mainly electricity, but hooking up my water pump wasn't exactly intuitive, either. I have three primary sources for learning about these kinds of things; my friends, the internet/books, and the scientific method. Friends are the easiest resource to utilize with tough problems. The internet will usually yield an answer after a few Google searches and YouTube videos. Trial and error is slow but effective; especially if you take notes.

Given my profession, I feel pretty confident in the use of hand and power tools, which I think many are embarrassed to say they aren't familiar with. Like many other things tools are best learned by jumping in and using them. I have purchased tools which I had no idea how to use until I screwed it up a few times and talked to friends (the backhoe and welder comes to mind.) I still screw things up using the wrong tool, and I'm a "professional." I know I can learn it.

Another huge help to me comes from planning. I usually have an idea, and mull it over for days or weeks before implementing it. I think about how my new idea will work with other things that are already on the bus, or with other things I'm planning. Most of the serious ideas end up on paper in sketches, which helps me visualize the idea (a skill gleaned from my Dad.) Then I start acquiring pieces I know I'll need. When time, resources and motivation come together, I get to work.

The difficulty, and I may sound like Donald Rumsfield, is not knowing what you don't know. You find out what you were missing early in projects, and I always feel like it was something obvious that I had overlooked in the planning. Sometimes this costs money, or time, and sometimes you surprise yourself with your own ingenuity when you find a creative solution to a problem. When I realize what it is that I didn't know I needed, I start making lists (a skill from my Mum) so that when I go on a parts run I can get everything I need at once (saving time, and therefore preventing frustration.)

To those reading that have doubts about their ability to do "this," be it a bus-cabin or any other minor engineering feat, know that you absolutely can. All you need is an idea and a willingness to learn. I recommend patience and a good set of tools, as well, but it's not necessary.

But I digress; that's enough mechanic zen philosophy for one night.


The wood stove arrived on day 10097; and after assembling it in the barn and admiring the craftsmanship during the work week, I finally got to use it Saturday morning. Included with the stove, which was designed for heating canvas tents, was a three page packet describing safe use. Two notes stuck out; run it outside first to finish curing the paint, and cook bacon and eggs on it to learn how to use it. Not having any bacon on hand I tried eggs, toast and coffee. The results were highly pinterest-able!

The Three Dog is easy to use, and baffled so that the hottest cook surface is about 8" in front of the chimney stack. The shelf on the side is how you can regulate temperature of what you're cooking. It was a brisk morning, and the little Three Dog put out enough heat that a T-shirt was comfortable when sitting around it.

My dad walked by, as I was enjoying a cup of coffee with Zeke, and commented that I've spent too much time in Afghanistan if I think things like this are enjoyable. He said this with a steel digging bar in hand, walking out back to build a stone wall... for fun. Clearly the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. We had coffee, and I continued brushing off a pile of bricks we've had lying around, to use for my fireplace.

I put the stove in idle to see how long my bed of coals would last, and started laying out the bricks on the floor. I removed the trim panel aft of the kitchen, to be reinstalled at a later date on the other end. At first I was concerned about the weight of the bricks on the floor (48 bricks at about 5 lbs each is ~240 lbs, plus a 60 lb stove) but then I thought about how big some kids are these days, and how this area was about the size of a bench seat, and the bus has probably had a pair of husky 5th graders sitting together in this spot before.

The futon is Ezekiel's spot of choice, by the way.

My bricks arranged, I knew I needed eight half pieces to round out my fireplace. I had no idea how to cut or break or split a brick, so I turned to the internet. Quick aside; everything looks easier on YouTube. People don't post a 20 minute video of them struggling to do something they aren't confident about; most videos are a few minutes, from someone who has mastered the task at hand, and make it look super easy! Just like brick-cutting. "It's easy!" said the notional YouTube guy "just score the brick with a chisel, set this special hammer on it like so, and two firm taps, voila, a perfectly cut brick!"

Well my bricks took about a dozen firm taps, and a few came apart like the one below.

Another quick sidenote, I'm pretty sure the chisel below was designed for splitting bricks. When I was a kid, playing in the sandbox, this chisel was frequently taken from my dad's toolbox for constructing the perfect roads for my collection of Matchbox cars. I'm still more comfortable making dirt highways for Matchboxes than splitting bricks with it.

I used a dab of a very strong adhesive... that I acquired expired... from military surplus... to secure each brick to the floor.

Then with a tube of mortar repair RTV loaded in a glue-gun, I went through and sealed the area between the bricks. I didn't use real mortar because I didn't think it would hold up to the frame flexing during a drive. The RTV I used was very thick, and could be carved reasonably well, so I went through after with a tongue depressor / popsicle stick to make it look more like mortar.

It still looked artificial to me, though, being one even color with no texture, so I got a few scoops of mica-rich dirt from the driveway and brushed it in. Much better. Now it looks like an original 18th century fireplace in a 2001 International school bus... just like in colonial times.

Onto the next project; the heat shield. I cut an 8' piece into three relatively even chunks using tin snips, and wearing thick leather gloves. I managed to not cut myself! 

I consulted my local fire marshal, on break from moving large rocks around the yard for fun, and discussed options for mounting a piece of Guatemala-roofing sheet-metal to protect the bus from the wood stove. Often when I hit a roadblock, where I can't continue forward with a project until I figure out some sort of solution, I will stare at it, google it, and play around with it until I get an idea or a solution appears from the ether.

My thoughts tend to wander. How will I hang this off the side, to create a few inch wide air barrier? I don't have enough little brackets on hand. Also, metal brackets will transfer the heat the panel absorbs into whatever I mount it to. I need an insulator, something glass or ceramic. Can I stick a brick back there? It will flop over. Would the hardware store have any kind of high heat insulating mounts? I don't know what those would be, and it sounds expensive...

But wait! I don't need to mount it! It can just sit on the bricks... if I can figure out how to make it not flop over... like making a frame. What do I have for scrap metal? The bus doors.

The solution now apparent after some deliberation, I plugged in the angle grinder.

I cut the pieces to size, and welded them together with some 6011 rod...

... then I nestled my sheet metal heat shield into the frame...

... and secured it with some sheet-metal screws. You may be thinking; "gee Aaron, drilling holes, then putting screws in is a lot of work, and you already have the welder going, can't you just do a bunch of spot welds?"

Well, I thought that too, dear reader. Unfortunately 3/32" 6011 at 60 amps blasts through 0.020" sheetmetal like an RPG. One corner of the heat shield now has authentic battle damage.

My rigid-frame heat-shield now installed in the fireplace, I brought the wood stove in and jury-rigged the chimney.

As it cooled down I lit the fire, which gave the bus a nice sweet smell of wood smoke, and put some music on. I sipped some equally smoky Laphroig, and lounged on the couch.

The bus now runs on diesel, batteries... and hardwood.

Day 10096

To start off, I'd like to thank all of those in my unit that checked out the bus during the BBQ this weekend! I appreciate all the kind words. The feedback was fantastic, and I got a lot of great ideas from my friends and family in the Company. You guys helped me plan this thing from the beginning on the Guatemala trip, and I'm glad I could display to you all a (mostly) finished product, of an idea realized.

I tallied my expenses for the prospective skoolie builder who has stumbled upon this blog. My general philosophy building my bus was "the 80% solution" and "it's a bus, not a space shuttle." Also worthy of noting is that I built the bus to be a cabin, not an RV, so many things that would have made it a better machine on the road were sacrificed in order to simplify the project.

I estimated this project would cost $7200, and as of right now I've spent approximately $9600, with the intention of spending more to install the wood stove, and finish wiring my DC lighting. It took about four months to build, working primarily alone on weekends and evenings after work. The reasons for going over my estimate are various, but ultimately it comes down to time or money; you're going to spend one of them to build a bus. In hindsight, I'm confident I could have kept to my $7200 budget if I was a more disciplined scrounger. Scrounging to save money takes time; time is spent on craigslist finding what you need, time is spent driving out to the corners of NH and MA to pick it up, and time is spent fixing up these used finds to make them work for you.

Often, when I came upon a roadblock during construction, I would get impatient and head to Lowes or the Depot to get the exact component I needed to make things work, spending more money in lieu of possibly wasting valuable time. To avoid forgetting things on trips to the store (which is pretty much the worst thing in the world) I keep running lists on the notepad on my phone, or would jot notes with a dry erase marker on the bus window. Occasionally the hardware or auto stores in town would prove fruitless as well (the second most frustrating thing in the world,) and I ended up ordering a lot of small specific items on the internet, which costs me both time and money.

I'm reminded of being in Guatemala trying to find a tarp at a hardware store in Coatepeque. None of the shop owners had any, and every one of them directed us to San Marcos, five hours drive away. And here I am complaining about not being able to find a specific kind of 3/0 gauge crimp terminals for battery cables in town.

In summary, this bus could have been built for less money, it just would have taken a larger investment in time. Below is my expenses;

The bus will be going on the back-burner while I clean out the barn and rebuild the backhoe. It would also behoove me to give the F350 some attention before winter, like fixing some minor wiring issues and swapping the batteries with the bus's old ones.

The parts I need to more thoroughly wire the DC side of the bus's electrical system are trickling in from the internet. I ordered a marine circuit breaker panel, wire, dozens of 2.1 mm jack connectors, two LED floodlights and half a dozen little 3w spotlights for the cabin.

Here's one of the 3w lights...


And one of the 48w floodlights for the entrances, as a porch-light.

Also on the way is a "Three Dog" wood stove from Four Dog Stove company. Not only is this stove made of welded steel right here in the United States, but it's lighter than a cast stove, has been baffled to create a good cook surface on top, and is built to stay burning all night. As we get into late September and October (my favorite time to be in NH) I'll be looking forward to the heat from the stove.

Day 10088

Bus is done.

Back on Day 9971...

... One summer (and six or seven days of exterior painting) later.

Removing the gum and hair covered seats on Day 9969, looking forward...

... and the view now, from the bedroom looking into the kitchen.

Laying down the plywood subfloor over the old seat mounts, looking aft...

... and the new view from the kitchen.

Until I get the water pump completely wired (I did figure out how I want to plug all the 12v dc accessories in, just need to order parts) I'll be using whiskey bottles for water.

I got a spider plant. It really dresses the place up.

The dining area / lounge. I sealed the electrical cabinet countertop with urethane, and painted the side red to break things up a bit.


Captain's quarters. Thanks again to Iain & Darcy, and John & Taylor, for the donations!

The workshop.

The freshly painted cockpit.

The mudroom.

 The finished door.