If you’ve ever headed down to a festival and seen a bus with a hot tub on the roof, or an American school bus set up as a pizza parlour, chances are Jim Stewart and his super talented team had a hand in making them.
Jim is the owner of thriving business Shred and Butta, one of the UK’s leading bus and vehicle converters. His team of craftsmen, carpenters, welders and interior fitters create one-of-a-kind living and working spaces out of old vehicles. And the results are pretty much always spectacular.
He and his team are the subjects of a great new Quest series called Full Metal Junkies. From their base of Marsh Farm in Surrey, the boys use their decades of experience to take on mind-blowing builds, from crazy promotional vehicles for some of the world’s biggest brands to life changing camper conversions for those looking to a life on the road.
We sat down to chew the fat with Jim about what to expect from Full Metal Junkies, his most ambitious projects to date and exactly what it takes to be part of his crew.
The MALESTROM: Looks like you’ve got a great set up down there at Shred and Butta. What an operation!
Jim Stewart: Thank you. We’ve been at this yard ten years. We started with just a bus and a container and we’ve kind of spread around the farm with more and more little bits. It reminds me of a shanty town at Glastonbury, it’s got that crazy mix going on. We always joke that if we could ever start again and rebuild it, the site would be totally different. But it’s all part of the charm how it is down here. It’s very cool.
TM: Tell us what Full Metal Junkies is all about?
JS: The show found us. In a similar way to how this business found us. We didn’t set out to create a business. We built one bus for someone and it led to the next, then the next, then the next. It was just following on that journey, running behind to try and keep up and to keep it all going.
We did a show with Johnny Vegas, they found us through social media, it was very last minute, we weren’t part of the original show. We built a couple of vehicles for them in four weeks, the show made it look like a lot longer, but we had so much fun filming and the camera crew became part of the team almost.
What you see on Full Metal Junkies is 100% real. It’s not scripted. There were guys guiding and directing us. They were the ones that said initially, you guys are ridiculous, you almost have your own show down here. We just thought we were a bunch of idiots doing our thing. So, it was quite funny when the series actually got commissioned.
But the experience of doing the show has been amazing, I think what we’ve managed to capture is the importance of what we do. We’re not just building another camper van. We love it when we’re actually making a difference in someone’s life.
We’re in touch with all of our customers. They send us photos from their holidays, Saif we did the barber van for comes and cuts my hair every other week. We have amazing relationships with everyone we’ve done work for. It’s beautiful to know it’s not just another vehicle. I hope people take that from the show, that they see the nice balance, the fun we have, but also the real work that happens.
TM: What’s your background? How did you get into all this initially?
JS: The story goes back twenty odd years. I was into cars, motorbikes and engines from a young age. I was very practical, always tinkering and building stuff, always working with my hands. I was good at school, but I didn’t love school. I didn’t take the normal route. I tried University, saw it wasn’t for me and I went to work. I started my job as a mechanic at sixteen and carried on till I was twenty five.
After that I realised I’d worked for ten years and not travelled much, so I packed the van and went off to Val d’Isère and started ski-teching and fixing peoples snowboards. A ski mechanic I guess. That’s where I started my first company, Butta, a snowboard company. I was working in the summer fixing chalets, learning carpentry alongside some fantastic guys. It was old school, we had to rebuild the chalets like they were built in the first place.
My business brought me back to the UK in 2010, and then there was one night at a big event in Shoreditch. We brought a load of snow from the Snowdome and had a rail sponsored by O’Neil, my mate was the marketing manger. After a few beers at the afterparty he said to me, Jim, I want to go on a mad tour, I want to build a surf showroom bus. I want to build it just like Jack O’Neil did with his first surf shop in his Dad’s garage. This was right up my street.
That was it, Monday morning he was calling me about sending money to my account to go and buy a bus. I bought two buses, not one. Because that’s the kind of person I am. And that’s where the business began, we never sat down and thought about it, we just followed the journey it’s taken us on.
TM: Tell us about the other guys on the show. How is it working with them? Is it generally peaceful?
JS: One hundred percent. It’s part of the job description that you’ve got to become one of the team. We have had people come and go because they either don’t get it, or they don’t blend in. You’ve got to become one of the guys. There’s an element of trust you have to have when working with machinery and tools. As much fun as we have we all trust each other with the work we do. That’s really important.
Me and Scotty go back to the snowboarding days, that’s how we know each other. When we were doing that first O’Neil job, he did his HGV licence just so he could come and drive. He’s been with us from the start. He’s not just a member of staff, he’s one of my best mates in the world. Every one of the guys down there is and that’s amazing. If we lose that it just becomes a job, but being able to work with your best mates and produce the work we do makes it all worthwhile.
TM: In terms of the builds, talk us through some of your more ambitious projects …
JS: I’ve never kept count of the builds, but I know we’ve done a ton. We’ve done double decker buses with glass roofs and glass floors between the decks so you can stand downstairs and see the sky. That bus in particular had a nightclub sound system all controlled by an iPad. You could stand outside the bus and change all the lights and control the speakers. That was a mega build.
We also do little stuff, we’ve turned Morris Minors into barbecues, we’ve turned Land Rovers into bars. For a friend of mine we did a hot tub bus. He had a double decker open top, we put a tub on the top deck. His brief was he wanted to be able to rock up at a festival and be in the tub within 45 minutes. That was the real challenge, to heat a thousand litres of water, to 38 degrees so quickly. We found a way.
We’ve done cool container builds. There was a truck for Nerf where we got an old military lorry and put a container on the back and turned the inside into this James Bond style headquarters that kids could go in and press a button that would bring out new guns from a box Q style surrounded by dry ice.
There’s been lots of really cool promo vehicles. We did a Land Rover recently that we raised the roof of so you could stand in it, and then we made it look like the Dumb and Dumber truck by covering it in fur.
TM: So, there’s nothing off limits? I guess it’s just the scope of imagination?
JS: Sometimes there’s a number of ways to do things, you just have to test it and find out the best one. It’s like importing American school buses. I had no idea at first, it took me six months to do the paperwork because I was back and forth with the DVLA. Now I can get it done in two weeks. Every new job is informed by ones we did in the past. You learn on every build and you learn off each other.
TM: Do you get bored if your not pushing the envelope? Especially having done so much crazy stuff to date.
JS: Not really. Because we also do stuff for ourselves. If you come down to this yard you’d be amazed at what’s kicking around the place. I buy weird stuff. I bought a swan pedalo last week. If I know the team are having a bit of a slump one day we can take the pedalo on the river.
I bought an old army truck that was knackered. One scorching hot week we turned it into a swimming pool. With having things around we can do these mini builds that really boosts morale. Have a couple of days of fun then you can go back to work with a fresh love for it.
TM: Are you seeing more people wanting builds that will become their homes? Maybe seeking a more nomadic experience.
JS: Definitely. When the pandemic first came around, we didn’t know what to do. We shut for two weeks and had a serious discussion about what it meant for the business. And throughout that two weeks my phone didn’t stop. Anyone who’d been thinking they wanted a campervan, were now ready to build a campervan, or anyone that was stuck in the city and always had a dream of having a tiny home and living in the country, they wanted to do it straight away.
That was amazing to see people’s mindset and eyes open. Something about the pandemic changed peoples lives, in some ways it made them take a leap into another life. So, we’re not just building vans for people’s weekends away, they’re going to really use it and that’s awesome.
TM: It must make you proud when you look at those realised projects that are changing peoples lives?
JS: That’s it. It’s lovely to get that and just to know these things are still out there being used.
TM: Of course every project is different, but is there a rough average price for conversions?
JS: No. Every job is so different. We do everything from a little coffee Tuk Tuk to crazy promo vehicles. You can come here with two grand, you can come here with a hundred grand. I always try and manage expectations as to what your money can achieve. But we work with any budget.
We want to work with the people we want to work with, the people with dreams and visions. There is no average. There’s never a pot that’s too small, it’s just about how I use that pot. That’s where we have to get clever. Sometimes that’s with the materials we use, whether they’re reclaimed bits of salvage from around the farm or whatever it might be.
TM: What do you hope people take away from watching Full Metal Junkies?
JS: I hope what people take from the show is just to try stuff. When we do things in the show there’s no rulebook on how to convert a camper, you just do it. You work it out. If you decide to do something and it’s not for you at least you tried it.
TM: We always like to finish by asking for a piece of wisdom or a lesson that you might have learned from your career.
JS: One of the things the boys appreciate about me is I don’t let things stress me out. I try not to worry about stuff. Things don’t always go our way and when things go wrong it can be expensive or dangerous. But there’s always a way to fix things and I find it’s about staying calm and finding that way.
It’s too easy to get too caught up in that moment of madness and then you can’t see that clear vision. Sometimes you have to step away for a minute, take a walk then come back and figure it out. The more pressure you put yourself under the less you’ll be able to do something. That’s an important lesson, especially for this kind of job.
Full Metal Junkies will premiere at 9pm, Tuesday 22nd March on Quest and will also be available to stream on discovery+
Click the banner to share on Facebook