In this instructable I'll be showing you how to turn an old broken refrigerator into an awesome rustic cooler, great for parties, bonfires, and all of types of outdoor festivities. This project is easy to tackle and best of all it doesn't cost a lot to build as most of the materials are recycled or reclaimed. This is also a great weekend project as it should only take a day or two from start to finish and doesn't require any specialized tools beyond standard wood working tools like drills, drivers, and saws.
And if you enjoy this project please consider voting for it in the "Before & After", "Summer Fun", and Summer Food and Drink" Contests. Thanks!
One of the best things about this project was the cost of materials, pretty much nothing! The broken refrigerator was left in the basement of my little sisters new home, and the pallets for free to take from a local business. Really the only things that had to be purchased were a few cans of spray paint, some caulking, a few plumbing fittings, two 2" X 4"s, and some casters. All told, the cost of this project was somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 and considering how big this project is I think that's pretty cost effective.
Old Refrigerator - Make sure the Freon has been properly removed, more info on this in step 4.
Pallets - You'll need about 4 pallets to get enough wood for this project.
Screws - 1 1/4" wood screws work well for this project
Casters - To make it move.
2" X 4"s - For framing in the bottom of the fridge and to build the base the cooler sits on.
Misc PVC/Brass Fittings - Used to construct a drain at the bottom of the cooler for easy draining after use.
Rope and Eye Bolts - To keep the cooler lids from opening too far.
Black Spray Paint
The tools for this project are pretty standard and are things that most people who like to dabble in making and wood working probably already have sitting in their workshop.
Drill/Driver - Pilot holes and driving screws.
Chop Saw - Useful to cut perfect 90 degree ends on the prepared pallet boards.
Circular Saw - For breaking down pallets.
Sander - for knocking down rough edges on pallet wood and for roughing up the fridge for painting.
Caulking Gun - For plugging holes in the refrigerator to make it waterproof and for applying liquid nails.
Pry-Bars and Hammers - For breaking down pallets into usable lengths of wood.
Breaking down the pallets can be a bit of a challenge considering how well they're put together. The method that seems to work the best or me is to cut through the deck boards where they attach to the side stringer boards of the pallet. This leaves only the middle stringer and the deck boards attached and with a bit of leverage and some hammering you can easily separate the deck boards for use in your project.
Once the pallets were dismantled, the next step was to process the deck boards so that they were 25.75" long (the width of the refrigerator. To do this we assembled a quick jig for the cop saw that allowed us to index the boards to the correct length quickly so that all of the wood could be processed as efficiently as possible. We also left a few deck boards uncut so that they would be long enough to use for trim pieced in a later step.
Dismantling the refrigerator is a pretty straight forward process, basically just take out the screws and most of the electronics and shelving pull right out. One very important thing to be aware of though is the Freon lines. It is Illegal to cut Freon lines and allow the gas to escape into the atmosphere! Getting caught doing so will warrant a hefty fine, and more over, it's just a bad idea as you're polluting the air and the environment. In our situation the refrigerator we used was left in the basement of my sisters newly purchased house and the previous owners decided for some reason to cut the lines before leaving so we didn't have to contend with Freon removal. However if you're thinking about tackling this project and don't already have a busted Freon free refrigerator at your disposal fear not, there are safe ways to deal with the Freon. Check out the links below to learn how to safely remove Freon from your refrigerator. I think these guides were built for the purpose of scraping the refrigerator for metal, but they'll work just fine for this project too.
Once you have the refrigerator stripped down you're ready to start the next step, painting!
Painting the refrigerator isn't a necessary step, the reason we chose to do it was because the bright white enamel of the refrigerator was very visible where the unfinished edged of the pallet boards came together and the white showing through the boards made the project look very unfinished. If you're lucky enough to have a black refrigerator for this project then you can skip this step otherwise, grab a sander to rough up the surface of the refrigerator and about 4 cans of flat black spray paint and get to work.
Note: try to avoid spraying the gaskets that seal the refrigerator doors. The paint may cause the gaskets to seal less effectively making your refrigerator/cooler less effective.
Note: Don't worry to much about getting a perfect coat of paint. most of the refrigerator is going to be covered by wood, the only goal of the paint is to cover up the thin spaces the will be visible where the pallet boards don't quite meet. The last picture on this step is the finished paint job we moved forward with and as we you can see, it isn't all that pretty.
With the refrigerator painted black, the next step was to start covering the sides, top, and bottom of the refrigerator with the reclaimed pallet wood. We started by laying out the cut pallet boards to see how they would fit together on the side of the refrigerator. Making them fit together, and making everything look good, took a bit of time as some of the pallet boards had to be fit together like puzzle pieces. Once everything looked good we started attaching the boards using a combination of liquid nails and 1 1/4" wood screws. The screws were long enough to go through the outer casing of the refrigerator, but not so long that they would puncture the inside cooler compartment, the screws also provided clamping pressure to ensure a good bond between the liquid nails, wood, and refrigerator.
The top and sides of the refrigerator were very easy to cover with wood, (the only small hang up was accommodating the door hinge on the top of the refrigerator which required a bit of router work to make one of the boards fit properly). The bottom of the refrigerator proved to be a little more work as we had to frame some parts of it in with 2"X 4"s before we could add the pallet wood siding.
Covering the doors of the cooler with wood is pretty similar to covering the sides with the only real difference being that it takes a bit more craftsmanship to keep everything looking nice. We started by covering the edges of the doors, cutting the pieces so that they were 3/4" wider than they needed to be. This extra width worked to hide the cut edges of the 3/4" thick pallet boards that were used to cover the front faces of the doors. Lastly once the front faces and edges were covered, trim boards were added along the edges of the doors to give everything a finished appearance.
One of the most important considerations when building this cooler was a way to make it portable so that it could be taken to different parties or events as needed. no that end, there is an under-structure made of 2" X 4"s that supports the weight of the cooler and also provides mounting points for casters.
One of the bigger challenges of this project ended up being waterproofing. Believe it or not, refrigerators are not built to be waterproof when laid horizontally, there are holes for wiring, holes for attaching ice makers, and apparently just some holes for no other reason than to make the process of water proofing a refrigerator just a little bit harder. Never the less, with a little time and a lot of caulking we were able to seal everything up nice and tight. The smaller holes were easily sealed with a dab or two of caulking, the larger holes required a combination of PVC plugs and caulking, and the largest hole ended up being used to create a really handy drain so that the cooler can be emptied of melted ice and water by the twist of a handle. Once everything was sealed and the caulking was given sufficient time to cure, the cooler was filled with water to check for leaks, any leaks found were fixed with more caulking and once everything was water tight the cooler was almost ready for use.
With all the major work done, the last step of the project is to give the cooler a little character and charm. Heavy duty handles were added to both the cooler bay lids to make them easier to open, rope catches were added to keep the lids from opening too far, and a chalk board was added to the front to let people know what would be available inside the cooler.
Thanks for taking the time to check out my instructable on how to turn an old refrigerator and a few scrap pallets into an awesome rustic party cooler. This was a really fun project to work on and it has already proven to be a useful addition to our summer evening cook outs and other parties, not to mention that it also a great conversation piece and really catches people off guard when they open the cooler like to find what use to be a refrigerator.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave them in the comments section below, I enjoy hearing from you guys so don't be afraid to post! Also, if you enjoyed this project please consider throwing a vote my way for the "Before & After", "Summer Fun", & "Summer Food and Drink" Contests.