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 t…
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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