Introduction: Restoring a Vintage Cooler

Picture of Restoring a Vintage Cooler

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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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!

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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!


Carjack1012 (author)2015-09-26

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?

munchdog (author)Carjack10122016-10-03

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.

miked2001 (author)Carjack10122016-03-28

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.

twighahn (author)Carjack10122016-03-28

Rustoleum had a clear spray paint

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!

BrianJewett (author)Carjack10122016-03-17

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.

TaylorS75 (author)2016-09-19

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?

munchdog (author)TaylorS752016-10-03

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.

ctx1985 (author)TaylorS752016-09-21

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.

TaylorS75 (author)ctx19852016-09-21

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.

ctx1985 (author)TaylorS752016-09-22

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.

benoitchevrier (author)2016-05-07

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


twighahn (author)2016-03-28

Wish i was able to vote this in a restoration project

GoBen95 (author)2014-10-11

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

mlaiuppa. (author)GoBen952016-03-19

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.

ctx1985 (author)GoBen952014-10-11

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!

NachoJ (author)2015-09-13

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

BrianJewett (author)NachoJ2016-03-17

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

Catley (author)2016-03-17

What a beautiful job!

Catley (author)2016-03-17

What a beautiful job!

billie.nenninger (author)2016-03-17

Very nice Instructable! I see some of the comments at back a few years. Are these reposted at times? Anyway, we have a couple of vintage coolers and the matching Thermos jugs. Will have to look into restoring them. Thanks

ac-dc (author)billie.nenninger2016-03-17

Old yes, randomly (?) selected for promotion now. Must be a slow week or something. Regardless, weather is getting nicer in many parts of the US so it's not a bad time to start a metal restoration project, like a cooler to use for a picnic or camping.

Ricardo Furioso (author)2013-08-11

This is insane. And insanely beautiful. I love obsessions. And spending the time to dismantle, strip, undent, prime, and paint a three dollar yardsale cooler qualifies in my book. I love that you did it. I love how you did it. And I love the result. Bravo.
Exept. I'm wondering why you didn't just sand the old paint flat, fill it, and skip the stripping. You must have a good reason.
And if you can find a way, get some clear vinyl tubing and slide it over the handles to make it easier on the hands when filled with beer and ice. Or failing that, just cut the tubing lengthwise and cram it on.

Oh. Never tried vinegar. But I've had really good luck with citric acid, which is a scary phrase for dried lemon juice.
Bought some on ebay. Mix it with enough water to cover the part in a bucket. The interesting thing is that it only attacks the rust and turns it into a black powdery coating that you can brush off. Don't understand why this is not more widely known. For bigger stuff I've heard you can remove rust with molasses. Which sounds really weird.
Important thing is that unlike industrial chemicals, you can put your hands in vinegar, lemon juice and molasses and not freak out. Plus, they're all eminently biodegradable as far as I know.

ac-dc (author)Ricardo Furioso2016-03-17

Practically all consumer-available acids are biodegradable. If nothing else, toss some baking soda in.

Anyway, those are weak acids and some may attack the metal too, and many don't do much to protect it.

The acid of choice is phosphoric acid. It leaves a protective phosphate coating on the metal. In some cases people even mix it into their paint for further protection. Popular low concentration solutions include cola (the beverage), or more common for this type of metal prep would be called "naval jelly". Once you try it, you won't want to settle for vinegar/lemon juice/etc.

Being able to put it on your hands is merely a sign it's not going to be very effective, not a plus or good thing. Here's an example of using vinegar vs a MILD phosphoric acid product. Imagine using something that wasn't diluted for the purpose of making people use more of the product up:

Remember it's not just about removing rust but also the phosphate coating it leaves behind.

ctx1985 (author)Ricardo Furioso2013-08-11

I'll definitely have to give that a try on my next rusty project! Thanks for the tip!

ctx1985 (author)Ricardo Furioso2013-08-11

Thank you so much for the kind words. Comments like yours really make the time and effort put into projects and the instructables themselves worth it. Aside from the fact that I love doing this sort of thing to begin with haha. I'm going to have to find some tubing like you mentioned. I was even thinking some 1/4" automotive clear fuel line hose may do the trick. I'm actually leaving tomorrow morning for a three week honeymoon driving out east to Newfoundland with my wife and we're bringing the cooler with us! Should work great for the nights we spend camping along the way! Oh, and regarding the paint stripping, that's just the way I do things. I just like to sort of start with an entirely fresh canvas if that makes sense haha.

Ricardo Furioso (author)ctx19852013-08-11

Ever hear of California?
Weather's better.
At least as pretty.
Plus Yosemite and big red trees.
And more beaches.
And flowers.

ctx1985 (author)Ricardo Furioso2013-08-11

Haha I've always wanted to take a long trip out to California...I've only ever been at LAX there and it was one of the craziest airports I've ever seen! I've actually been wanting to go back to Newfoundland for ages now (the last time I was there, I was 4 years old), as I have a lot of family there and There's actually a lot of beautiful scenery there to see. We live in Ontario, so we're going to drive out there through Canada, spend a week in Newfoundland and then go through Maine, New Hampshire, New York on the way back. Should be a great trip. California is definitely on my list of places to visit though!

cgarcia4545 (author)2015-09-05

Not to sure how to remove these so I can take the handles off would you know how?

ctx1985 (author)cgarcia45452015-09-07

Hi there,

Looks like those are either rivets or carriage bolts of some sort. Are you able to remove the insulation from the cooler to see what the back of those fasteners look like? If they are rivets, you can either drill them out and replace them with new rivets or bolts, or you can just leave them be and carefully tape off the handles when you repaint to avoid getting any paint on them. If they are carriage bolts, you can just remove the nut from the back side if it is accessable.

cgarcia4545 (author)ctx19852015-09-10

I can remove the insulation. There is nothin on the inside to drill out, I tried to use a screwdriver and hammer and pop them out didnt work. I am have to just tape everything which i didnt want to have to do.

sosclosetsandfurniture (author)2015-06-17

Nice work!

Thank you very much :)

scc92 (author)2014-12-02

Hello I acquired this cooler and was thinking of restoring it. It still runs. I would like to try a keep the original decal if possible thoughts on this?

ctx1985 (author)scc922014-12-03

Wow looks really cool! Great find! I'm thinking if you're careful, you can mask off the decal with painter's/masking tape. After you tape over the decal, use a hobby knife and carefully trim the tape off around the outside edge of the decal. Since your cooler looks pretty good (minimal rust and no dings), it doesn't look like you'll have to do a complete restoration and could possibly get away with giving the whole thing a good sanding and then just priming and repainting it. If you do want to completely strip all of the paint off, you'll just have to be very careful not to get too close the the decal with any strippers or other harsh chemicals. Remember to change the masking tape over the decal periodically as well, especially if you're planning on taking longer than a week to complete your project (most masking tapes will become more difficult to remover after a week or so and will be more likely to ruin your decal as well). Hope this helps! If there's anything else I can help with, don't hesitate to ask!

GoBen95 (author)2014-10-11

here is that fridge I am not sure how to send images by private message

ctx1985 (author)GoBen952014-10-11

Oh wow that's a really cool old fridge! Looks like it's from the 40s?

GoBen95 (author)2014-09-30

Thanks I'll keep you posted on my progress. Your instructable gave me the confidence to attempt this.

ctx1985 (author)GoBen952014-10-01

Thanks so much :). Yeah I'd love to see photos of your progress! If you have any other questions, feel free to pm me as well. Good luck with your project!

GoBen95 (author)2014-09-30

I just bought an old frigidaire and I want to restore it. Do you think I could follow the same steps or do I need to do something different since it has an enamel finish?

ctx1985 (author)GoBen952014-09-30

Hi there,

I think that you can follow all of the same steps with enamel paint. Paint stripper should still work to get the old paint off, although it may be a little more difficult.

brandon.emerson.7792 (author)2014-09-27

I have seen replacement vintage COLEMAN decals for sale on the internet. Maybe here? try here:

Thanks very much for the link!

static (author)2014-02-06

Nice. I have an older cooler I inteded to restore Evidently it was in someones way and they sat it outside drirectly on the ground. Bythe time I discovered t the bottom of the steel outer shell rusted beyond repair cost

ctx1985 (author)static2014-02-06

Aww that's too bad that the bottom rotted out. I've seen a lot of people selling the old steel coolers on craigslist and kijiji for pretty cheap actually. Maybe you could find a good one on there :)

bginoza (author)2013-12-02

this was awesome. Great tutorial!

ctx1985 (author)bginoza2013-12-02

Thanks so much! I really appreciate the kind words.

howie57 (author)2013-10-31

What a great looking cooler and a really good tutorial. I was just wondring if you could get some decals (Coke,Pepsi,Bud) to put on the cooler to give it a little more personal touch. Not that it needs any. Just a thought.

ctx1985 (author)howie572013-10-31

Thanks! Yeah I actually did look into getting a decal for it. I wanted to get the original brand, but couldn't find one, so I may just get a coke or pepsi one or whatever.

About This Instructable




Bio: 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 ... More »
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