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The Ultimate Cooler Painting Guide

Ladies, it is that time of year again! Cooler Painting Season… er, I mean Away Formal season… The gentlemen of your choice has asked you to his away formal, and you are in a panic about this whole cooler thing, but never fear, just follow this step by step instruction guide to becoming the Van Gogh of Coolers. 

Obviously, you will need a cooler, but, unfortunately, not all coolers are created equal. Your best bet is a cooler with minimal indentions, and always avoid the coolers with the ribbing— trust me, you will come to curse that Igloo symbol enough. 

Some pros fill in the Igloo symbol (or other indentions) with spackling or a similar filler, but, in my experience, this can be a toss-up. If you have plenty of time to perfect it by letting it dry layer by layer then sanding, it can be a huge success, but I’ve never had enough time or patience and have subsequently thrown out some lumpy, half-spackled coolers. 

Also, you may think that you are the coolest date ever for getting a rolling cooler… I warn you that this will become your new hell. Rolling coolers are tricky to paint. Between the wheels, the collapsible handle, and usually some handle indentions on the side, it’s better to go without.


If you’re shopping on the Mountain, I recommend Dollar General: they have relatively inexpensive coolers, Sharpies, and even a little paintbrush kit. Unless you’re a big crafter and will want paint for other projects, it’s best to go down to Walmart with some friends and collectively buy paint (The one in Winchester usually has a better craft selection). 


But, before you buy your paint, I suggest that you go ahead and plan out the sides, so you’ll know what colors you need. Try Cooler Connection on Facebook or Pinterest, if you’re looking for ideas, or just ask your date about his favorite things!

If you want to find ideas, but also want to be completely and totally nauseated by all of the #fratstars, just Google search “frat cooler.”

And, remember, big logos with the least intricate details usually work out best. 

So, without further adieu, here is a breakdown of each step of the process: 

You Will Need:

  • A Cooler, obviously…
  • Sandpaper (unless someone in your life has a power sander)
  • White Spray Paint
  • Painter’s Tape
  • Some Newspaper 
  • Lots of Acryilic/Outdoor Paint
  • Paint Brushes of all sizes (be sure to get one really fine tipped paintbrush!)
  • Mod Podge (I prefer gloss, but either way is fine)
  • Computer and Printer
  • Scissors
  • Tissue Paper
  • Sharpies (regular and fine tipped)
  • Colored Pen

Take your shiny, new cooler and begin sanding! Sand until it looks somethnig like the one below. If you sand the cooler, the surface wont be as smooth and plastic-y, and the paint will then adhere better. 


After you’ve sanded, take your cooler outside and put some newspaper down. If you’re really worried about a pristine cooler, go ahead and put painters tape on the inside and on the white, outside rim of the cooler—if you do it in this stage, you won’t risk pulling off the spraypaint by taping later. Let your cooler dry completely. 

After you’ve let it dry completely, I suggest that you go ahead and paint any colored backgrounds. Some paints go on less opaque or thinner than others— if you’re struggling to get an even coat without an abundance of brush strokes, I suggest painting beige on top of the white spray paint, then painting your colored background. When painting the backgrounds, make sure that you paint the bottom corners well. I usually paint about an extra inch around all of the bottom edges by putting my cooler on shoebox. 

While you’re letting the backgrounds dry, go ahead and start planning your designs. I use the tissue paper method in order to transfer designs onto the cooler. First, find a design on your computer and blow it up appropriately (I usually use Word’s full screen feature). It makes it easier if you turn the brightness up (and the lights off, if you’re having a really hard time).


Cut out a sheet of tissue paper the approximate size of that side and then lightly tape it onto your computer screen. Use a colored pen to lightly trace over the design onto the tissue paper. Adjust the tissue paper accordingly in order to accommodate bigger designs— I usually roughly map this out for bigger designs to make sure that everything will fit. 


After tracing the design, tape it lightly onto the side you’re going to paint to avoid pulling up any background paint. Trace over the tissue paper with a Sharpie—fine tipped for intricate designs, and regular tipped for clearer outlines. Be sure to apply a decent amount of pressure, but not enough to rip the tissue paper, or you’ll make big blots of Sharpie.


Once you’ve traced the design onto the cooler, you can fill in the design with paint. It’s easier to paint the bigger areas, then fill in the details—keep your design up on your computer for reference! If any details are too intricate for paint, try a fine-tipped Sharpie.  


And, then, voila! 


Rinse your brushes and repeat on the following sides!

Note: Some people cut out printed designs, Mod Podge them on, then paint over them. The paper often crinkles or gets bumpy under the wet Mod Podge, but if you’re really in a hurry, this may your best bet.

After you’ve successfully painted all the sides and let them dry completely, take a big brush and put one good coat of Mod Podge all over the cooler. (If it’s a brand new brush, ruffle it with your fingers to prevent it shedding into the Mod Podge). To paint around the bottom edges and the corners, I usually put my cooler on top of a shoebox.

Less is more with Mod Podge. If you want to put multiple coats on, be sure that each coat dries completely. If you put a ton of coats on, you run the risk of the cooler being gummy or the paint/Mod Podge smudging, crinkling, and chipping even more than it usually would. Some people use clear spray paint in lieu of Mod Podge, but I find it makes the paint more likely to crack or chip. 

Congrats, you’ve just made the perfect cooler! Some girls paint cups to go the extra mile, but this isn’t a necessary. Fill with alcohol and mixers (maybe snacks too, if you’re feeling super generous) for both you and your date, and have a great time!




You may even feel so inspired that you paint one for yourself!


Alli Smith is a sophomore from Charlotte, NC. She's majoring in English, with minors in Education and Women's and Gender Studies. She's an avid procrastinator who loves anything on TLC. She's particularly interested in female empowerment and positive sexuality. 
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