Restoring a Vintage Cooler





Introduction: Restoring a Vintage Cooler

About: I'm a 29 year old guy who's passionate about building and fixing things, sometimes if they aren't even broken. I get a great sense of enjoyment out of creating, designing and building new things. I also love...

I picked up this old cooler at a garage sale for $3, which was a pretty good deal even though it was in pretty rough shape. Time to roll up my sleeves and get to work!

What you'll need:

-Vintage Cooler
-Spray Paint
-Rust Remover (If your cooler is rusty)
-Steel Wool
-Paint Stripper
-Spot Putty
-Body Filler
-Sandpaper (Various grits: 80, 150, 400, 1000, 2000, etc.)
-Rubber Gloves


-Metal Scraper
-Screwdriver (To remove any hardware from your cooler)
-Bodywork Hammer and Dolly (If your cooler is dented)
-Sanding Block (A small piece of 2x4 will work fine.)

Step 1: Remove Hardware, Plastic Inserts and Insulation

Grab your screwdriver and just take everything off of your cooler (Hinges, latch, handles, etc.). Then, remove the plastic inserts by just pulling them out and also take any insulation (styrofoam) out at the same time. Also, if your cooler has a drain somewhere, remove that as well. It's a good idea to put all of the hardware in ziploc bags or containers and set them aside somewhere so you don't lose them.

Step 2: Strip All of the Paint Off

This step is the messiest and most time consuming. Get out your gloves, paint stripper and a paint brush. Put on your rubber gloves and liberally brush on the paint stripper to any areas with paint on them and wait until all of the paint starts to bubble. Then get your scraper and start scraping all of the paint off. Most of it should come off pretty easily, but you may have to use some steel wool to get any stubborn areas clean. After all of your paint is off, rinse the cooler off with water and dry it with an old towel or t-shirt.

Step 3: Hammer Out Any Dents and Remove Rust

If your cooler was well used, it most likely has a few dents in it. The old steel coolers were made out of fairly thin steel, so it's pretty easy to hammer out the dents. For larger dents, use the big end of your bodywork hammer. For smaller ones, use the small pointed end. 

You can get rid of the rust in several ways. If you have access to a sandblaster, that is the most effective way. Otherwise, you can use an angle grinder, sandpaper and a wire brush, or acids. I chose to use some acid since There was just some light surface rust on mine. Most auto parts stores carry rust remover acids with the bodywork supplies. Always wear gloves when handling these acids as they are very corrosive. Follow the directions on the bottle. Usually, you just brush some on, let it sit a while and just rinse it with water after.

Note: These pics were obviously taken before I stripped off the paint. It doesn't really matter if you hammer out the dents before or after you strip the paint off.

Step 4: Put a Coat of Primer On

Once you're satisfied with your dent and rust removal, you can spray a coat of primer on your cooler. I used some thick sandable primer, since I needed to add some body filler to a few areas to get rid of some minor imperfections afterwards. 

Step 5: Body Filler

If your cooler was dented and you had to hammer a few out, chances are the metal will still be slightly deformed and may need some filler. It turned out that with mine the entire lid was slightly warped, so I ended up putting a thin coat of filler on the entire top surface of the lid. To apply your filler, mix it with the cream hardener that it comes with and then use a putty knife or a special spreader to put on a smooth, even coat. After it cures, you'll need to sand it down. I used a power sander with some 80 grit sandpaper. After you've sanded it, you'll need to prime it again.

Step 6: Spot Putty

Now that you've smoothed out your dings, you need to fill in any imperfections that are left after sanding and priming over the body filler. Just use your putty knife and apply enough putty to fill in any small scratches or nicks left from the body filler. After this dries, you need to sand the putty with some 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper. It's a good idea to use a sanding block as well. Just keep dipping your sandpaper in water as you sand and continue until the area is smooth to the touch. The thicker the application of putty, the longer it will take to dry. If you're looking for something to do while you're waiting for the putty to dry, you can take all of the hardware and polish it with some metal/chrome polish. I washed all of my hardware with dish soap and a Scotch-Brite sponge before polishing it.

Step 7: Final Sanding and Priming

Once you've got all of your putty in to mask any little nicks and imperfections, you'll need to give it all a final sanding with some fine sandpaper. I used 400 grit wet/dry. Then prime it again and lightly sand the primer coat with some very fine paper (600-1000 grit). Then you're ready for your final paint job!

Step 8: Paint It!

Now that your final coat of primer is on and lightly sanded, you can paint your cooler. Just take your time with it and don't spray it on too thick or the paint will run. Use fast sweeping motions with the spray can and do several light coats rather than one thick one.

Step 9: Put It All Back Together

Once the paint has dried enough to handle your cooler, you can put the insulation, plastic inserts and hardware back on.

Step 10: Finishing Touches

If there are any little extras or tweaks you want to add, now is the time. I added a few rubber bumpers to keep the handles from damaging the paint when they hit the side of the cooler.

Now get some ice and something to drink!



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    86 Discussions

    Wondering if I can just paint a clear coat over this Coke cooler instead of total restoration. It us pretty oxidized but I like the wear and tear and old looking thing the way it is, but I know that I can't just put it into my patio or it will continue to oxidize. Any ideas?

    5 replies

    Clean with alcohol and lightly scuff with steel wool (000 fine) dust off any residue and spray with semi gloss. Gloss on old finish will just look weird, flat will be too dull. Two or three coats will give you years of happy service.

    Get some 000 or 0000 steel wool and buff down the heavy rust and then cover it with a clear coat to keep it from rusting again. The clear coat can be a lacquer or urethane. works super on chrome too.

    I'm with you. I think I'd replace the seal and the drain valve because they're functional, but all the rest just adds character. This thing has been to the party wars and come back more or less intact. Show off those battle scars!

    I did an instructable on this:

    I'd probably clean the surface well with a safe plastic or natural bristle brush and some soapy water, rinse well and dry. Then a coat of penetrol should seal and stabilize the rust. A coat or two of flat or mat polyurethane over the top will then add protection.

    I'm trying to restore an old 60s coleman cooler. I cant take off the drain that is on it and because of that I cant take out the inside of the cooler. any ideas? Also I have had trouble taking off the paint. I have paint stripper but its not doing the job. I took off a small amount but nothing major. should I get a stronger paint stripper?

    4 replies

    Just cut out the old drain and pick up a tube and lever plug replacement. If you're gonna repaint this guy, you just need to rough sand the old paint and use a decent primer to fill in the scratches. Trick is to let it dry and wet sand it, prime, wet sand, prime, sand and paint. Two or three coats w/without clearcoat will last years.

    Hi there,

    Well, if you can't take the drain off, the only suggestion I can make is to carefully mask it with tape when you are painting. Is there no way to remove the insulation from the inside of the cooler? If you can get that out, there will most likely just be a nut securing the drain from the back side which is very easy to remove.

    As far as the paint stripper goes, I have found that if you rough up the surface with some sandpaper or medium steel wool so that it scores the paint in some areas down to the bare metal, the stripper works a bit better. How long are you leaving the stripper on for? Sometimes you just have to leave it for a bit longer than you might think for it to react with the paint.

    Hey there,

    Thank you for the quick response. I have tried to pull out the inside of the cooler from the top and the bottom, when I did, the top insulation would start to crack. So that's why I am running into some trouble, I dont want to pull on it and have it crack even more. And as goes for paint stripper, I have left it on for 15min all the way up to 1hr and it would just have goop slide off when I would scrape.

    Hi again,

    That's too bad that the paint stripper isn't working at all for you. The only other option I could suggest of the stripper isn't working would be to sand the paint down. You can do this by hand with a sanding block or with a power sander.

    Nice job! - What is the paint you used? I'm having trouble finding the baby blue color to restore my coleman cooler.


    Wish i was able to vote this in a restoration project

    1947 and it still runs. They really don't make them like they used to.

    2 replies

    My parents had the very first refrigerator they bought when they moved to California in 1958 in the garage and used it until about 2005 when they finally got rid of it. It was still running. The finish had rusted and my Mom didn't like that she had to manually defrost it.

    Yeah, they don't build to last any more. No profit in it.

    I have a '50s O'Keefe and Merritt stove in my kitchen I bought from a thrift store for $400. They even delivered it for free. I replaced one missing handle and painted a few chips but it works great. Fabulous for proofing bread.

    Wow they really don't. I remember when I was a bit younger, my dad used to rent this cottage every summer and they had an old 40's era fridge out on the back deck for beer and stuff. Sat outside for years and still kept running ice cold!

    Very cool...cooler. That would be really nifty to have for the trunk of a vintage car. And it works.

    1 reply

    The old coolers usually work much better than most modern ones.


    2 years ago

    What a beautiful job!


    2 years ago

    What a beautiful job!