The ULTIMATE GUIDE to Removing All Those Goddamn Rivets from Your Skoolie
Perhaps the biggest downside to picking a skoolie as your new home is that unlike many of the other options, the school bus requires a lot of demolition before you can start building in there. With a cargo van like a Sprinter or Promaster, you are pretty much ready to build from the start. For us, it took months of work removing old panels, seats, insulation, flooring, heaters, superfluous wiring, you get the picture. All of it was difficult, but the panels in particular stand out as a traumatic memory because they are held on with a seemingly uncountable number of rivets. So, how do you get rid of all those rivets?
How to Remove those Pesky Rivets
In short: grind ‘em, pry ‘em, smash ‘em with a hammer. We came into this project as novices in all areas of construction, but I think that at this point we can assert with confidence that we are absolute experts in at least one area: rivet removal. We have by now likely attempted every method out there, and below you will find what we consider to be the best.
The angle grinder is an incredibly powerful tool. Prior to starting this project I had no idea that you could just waltz into home depot and, for less than the cost of dinner for two, buy yourself the power to easily rip through metal. For us, the angle grinder was a revelation. It also turned out to be the preferred means by which to remove rivets. Here’s how it is done.
Get yourself an angle grinder (~$30) and a pack of cutting discs (~$10). For those of you that haven’t used an angle grinder before, it is just a tool with a spinning disc made out of aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, and a mess of other stuff. They have many uses, from polishing metal, to grinding down bolts, to just slicing through steel like it’s nothing.
Before using your grinder, make sure to suit up in appropriate personal protective equipment (for the grinder make sure at a minimum you have eye protection, ear protection, some manner of respirator/face shield, gloves, and long pants and sleeves–these things throw off a lot of hot material that you want to keep off your body). Now that you have your gear on, it is time to cut.
For rivets, try to cut at a low angle so that you can trim the majority of the top off without cutting into the metal it is attached to–particularly if the metal underneath is something that is staying in the bus. Once you have trimmed enough of the top off that you can see a distinct line around the center of the rivet, you are done. Then just give the sheet a little tug with the pry bar and those rivets should pop right out. You can run down a row of rivets with the grinder and then pry the panel off in minutes.
Drill and Pry Bar
I have seen people have a lot of luck with this, but it was far from our favorite. If you are going to do it, be sure to invest in a set of titanium drill bits like THIS ONE. If you go into this trying to use all purpose drill bits you will quickly find yourself frustrated with the speed of work, and you will likely snap a few bits in the process.
The process itself is simple. Each rivet has a plug in the center called a mandrel. In order to remove the rivet, this mandrel needs to be eliminated. So, you simply drill out the mandrel and then pry out the rivet with the pry bar. Sometimes you can get the pry bar underneath the metal sheet to apply even pressure, other times you need to knock it under the rivet edge a bit with a hammer.
This is not the fastest of the methods, but it may be the cleanest. I would save this one for use in delicate areas near glass or other hazards. But for less delicate areas, the hammer and chisel does the same thing a whole lot faster.
Hammer and Chisel
This method is pretty simple and just requires a steady hand and a bit of muscle. Start with a hammer and a thin circular chisel roughly the size of the mandrel in the center of the rivet. Hold the tip of the chisel to the mandrel and give it a whack with the hammer. If you hit it clean and hard, it should pop that mandrel straight in. Sometimes it requires a few hits. You can run your way down a line of rivets like this pretty quickly.
Once all the mandrels are popped out you can peel back the panel with a pry bar, the claw on the back of the hammer, or another chisel. Our chisel set came with some wide flat ones as well, which were perfect for jamming between the ceiling panels to pop rivets or create a large enough space to get the pry bar in there.
Popping all the rivets and pulling the panels down still requires a bit of strength, so be ready at the end of the day with plenty of tacos and margaritas (our preferred post-bus activity). It goes relatively quickly, but your forearms will be worked.
Rivet Removal Tools
Finally, here’s a list of the tools that we used for 90% of our bus demolition. All of these are tools that you will use many, many times throughout your build and will make the rivet removal process much easier.
And a reminder that the tools listed above are affiliate links. That means that if you click through our link and buy something (anything at all) during that visit, we receive a small percentage of what you spend. We aren’t trying to sell you on anything that hasn’t been immensely useful to us, so I hope our suggestions work out for you. Thank you for your support!