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You just got asked to a fraternity formal.

You think it’s going to be all fun and games until some one lets you in on the fact that you now have to paint a cooler.

You think it’s going to be easy.

You cry in a ball on the floor when you find out it’s acually not.

I’ve been there before, 100%. Even though my first cooler was for my god-little for big and little week, I had nights where I was still up at 2 a.m. hand-sanding with completely numb arms. I’ve come a long way since my first cooler though, and I’ve learned a lot. Not to brag or anything, but I’ve sort of become the cooler queen. So, instead of whole fratenrities sending their dates to me for advice, I’m giving you a guide that has everything you need to know about painting, sanding, what to buy, and how to seal you masterpiece. Even if you are the oppposite of crafty, or have never held a paint brush in your hand, you can do this! Welcome to Cooler 101.

What you NEED:

1.     Cooler (I suggest the Igloo Island Breeze brand, because they are super easy to sand and cheap)

2.     White PLASTIC primer that sprays (Krylon has a great primer, but makes sure it’s the plastic or multi-surface one)

3.     A big bottle of white acryllic paint

4.     Assorted acryllic paint colors

5.     Paintbrushes of all sizes

6.     Outdoor modge podge (Green label, and it should say it’s waterproof)

7.     Spray acryllic sealer

8.     Medium grit sand paper

9.     Tissue paper

10.   Fine tip Sharpies

What you can live without, but will make the process 100x easier:

1.     Electric sander (they sell them for about $20 at Walmart, and they are a lifesaver)

2.     Bondo (to fill in any ugly logos)

3.     Miniwax Water-Based Polyacrillic (light blue can)

4.     Miniwax Indoor/Outdooor Helmsman Spar Urethane (hunter green can)

5.     Painters tape

6.     Foam brushes

Getting down to business

Step 1: Plan your sides

So you have bought your cooler. You know what it looks like and its dimensions. Now it’s time to do the fun part and plan out your sides. As a general guide, you’ll find that most coolers have a side with his name on it, a side with his fratnerity/your sorority letters, and the other sides have his interests. Since I’m painting this cooler for my older sister and her new husband, it will be wedding themed, but I still needed to plan out my sides like any other cooler. Pinterest and the Cooler Connection group on Facebook are two great places to start to get ideas! Once you have your sides picked, print out any particualr designs that you don’t think you could free-hand. If you want a specific kind of font, Pic Monkey is a free online tool you can use, and they offer a lot of really cool fonts or designs. I used Pic Monkey to make the below images. Once you have everything planned out, you have a good idea of the paint colors you will need to buy!

Step 2: Bondo any logos

For this step, it will require a bit of sanding, but only on the logo you are filling and the area immediately around it. Bondo is what they use to fill scratches on cars, so it’s incedibly durable and made to last. After you have sanded a bit, follow the directions on the back of the can, and make sure you get it on FAST. It dries quickly, and if you don’t get it on fast enough it will get crusty and not spread evenly. Make sure you use a plastic cup and fork, because once it’s on something, it’s there to stay.

Step 3: Sand

This is literally the worst part of the whole experience. Even with an electiric sander, it’s a pain in the ass. It’s also one of the most important parts of the whole process. Sanding the cooler roughs up the surface so that the paint has something to adhere to. Not sanding will result in the paint literally peeling off with just the scratch of the paintbrush. So, if I wasn’t clear enough just now, SANDING ISNT OPTIONAL. If you’re going to paint any part of the cooler, it needs to be sanded. When done correctly, the cooler should have a semi-white coat all over. If you used Bondo, the filling should be flat and even with the surface of your cooler. The better you sand, the better the paint stays, so save yourself some time and sanity and just invest in an electric sander or borrow one from a friend.

Step 4: Prime

Just like sanding, priming gives your paint something to stick to. Acrylic paint is not made for plastic, so the primer makes it possible for it to stick. Make sure you get plastic or multi-surface primer, because regualr spray paint won’t cut it. When you’re done priming, your cooler should look mainly the clor of your primer. I suggested white because it helps keep your colors true, but gray also works, and an art major once told me that gray actually makes your colors more vibrant. Tip: you do not have to prime or sand the bottom unless you plan on painting it.

Step 5: Paint it white

To fill any spots that you might have missed with primer, and to smooth out the cooler a bit, paint the whole thing white. This also helps make the colors more vibrant and keeps you from having to do a million coats of pink paint.

Step 6: Put down your base colors

Since I’m doing an ash colored wood-grain, my base colors are the lines I’m doing to make the wood-grain effect. For anything else, this would be considered what you paint on that is not considered detail work.

Step 7: Your first layer of modge podge

It’s very important to remember that this layer should be as thin as possible. If not, your future paint layers won’t stick, and your tissue paper could stick. Lightly brush it on, and give it about 15-20 minutes to dry completely before moving forward. Make sure you use a brush you don’t care about, because the modge podge wont come off completly, even when you wash it.

Step 8: Detail work

This is the part of the cooler that most people will stay up until 2 a.m with their eyes burning and lower back aching to finish. In case you were wondering where the tissue paper comes in, it’s now. Take your pre-printed designs, and lay them underneath the tissue paper. With a pencil or pen, trace over your design. When you’re done, place the tissue paper on your cooler. Then take your permanent marker, and trace over the design pressing relatively hard. When you take off the tissue paper, your design or text will have been transferred onto your cooler! This makes things about 1000x easier by keeping you from messing up and having to re-do the design to get it just right. If you laid your modge podge on too thick or your paint is still wet, and pieces of paint peel off your cooler when you take the tissue paper off, just modge podge over the spots and repaint them when they are dry.

Step 9: Modge Podge again

After you have added all of your detail work to you cooler, it’s time to start sealing. This time around, your modge podge layers will be a little thicker. Generally, I always do two extra layers on top of my cooler. If you do more than this, you run the risk of it being so gooey that the paint just peels off.

Step 10: Spray sealant

I always suggest acryllic sealer, because it’s long lasting and durable. It also gives your cooler a nice shiny sheen. Its only about $2, and it goes a long way against protecting your new baby from chipping.

Step 11: Miniwax

Because acrylic sealer isnt water prooof, and modge podge is just glue, I ALWAYS seal my cooler with Miniwax. I still have yet to have anything I’ve sealed with this chip (besides the cooler I spent five months on for my boyfried that his fraternity brother “borrowed” without permission to take to the river and ruined – I’m not bitter or anything). Since Miniwax is made for wood, it will yellow your cooler a bit, but a way to keep this is from happening is to apply the Miniwax Water-Based Polyacrillic (light blue can) before the Miniwax Indoor/Outdooor Helmsman Spar Urethane (hunter green can). Apply the polyacryllic with a brush you don’t care about, but don’t use a sponge brush, because the acidity of the Miniwax will melt the brush and you’ll get ugly black spots on your materpeice. After your two coats of this have dried, apply another 2 coats of the spar urethane. Remember these both take awhile to dry, so give yourself enough time to finish. Recently, a lot of people have been using Famowood or similair products to seal ther cooler, but since I’ve never used it I won’t be suggesting it to anyone. Once your spar urethane is dry, you should have a water-proof, formal-proof, fraternity-guy-proof, and “gets-thrown-down-the-stairs”-proof-cooler!

Even if there are times you want to either set you cooler on fire, or just buy him a foam one, once it’s done, even the most uncrafty girl should feel proud of herself! The guys know how hard we work on these, and they apprecite it (even if they do end up using it as a nightstand). One thing a lot of girls don’t realize is that the guys can spend anywhere from $150 to upwards of thousands of dollars for you to be their date to formal, so it’s really just a nice way to pay them back. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have an incredibly happy date, a cooler full of alchohol and snacks to help you forget about how bad your back hurts, and a huge sense of pride in just how crafty you can be!

Extra Tip and Tricks:

1.     A blow dryer on the COOL setting (hot will make your paint bubble) or a fan will help your paint/modge podge/sealer dry faster.

2.     You can use Sharpie for a lot of your detailwork. Just make sure it’s completey dry, and that you’ve added the extra step of a coat of spray sealent before   your last coats of modge podge.

3.     You can get acrylic paint off your floor by simply using clorox wipes of rubbing alchohol. If it gets on your clothes though, you’re SOL.

4.     Coolers make great gifts for friends and family too!





Chloe is currently a senior trying to figure out how she's going to be capable of functioning as a real adult in less than a year. When she's not currently dealing with this quarter life crisis you can find her at happy hour, watching movies she knows will make her cry (& forcing her fiance to watch them with her, becaue #love, obsessing over her December wedding, and just generally trying to relive freshman year with her friends because she knows the best years of her life are about to end.
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