Home » Pennsic » Our Cooler Cooler: How We Turned a Boring, Mundane Cooler Into an Old Treasure Chest

Our Cooler Cooler: How We Turned a Boring, Mundane Cooler Into an Old Treasure Chest

In preparing for Pennsic, I know we want to bring a cooler. Gregor will be fighting hard, it will be hot, and it would be good to have a cold drink or two. But a cooler? How mundane is that?! So I set out to look for ideas on bringing a cooler to Pennsic. Here’s what I found:

  • Hide the cooler in the tent
  • Throw a blanket or rug over the cooler
  • Make a wood box and put the cooler in it (i.e., Medieval Cooler Chests)
  • Buy a fancy, expensive, wooden cooler (i.e., Cowboy Country Coolers)
  • Change the outside of the cooler so it wouldn’t stand out

My Old Red Cooler

The last idea fascinated me, and I discovered this link on Making a Cooler Cooler by Ceallach mac Donal. I loved his idea of decoupaging his cooler, so I set out to try it with my old, bright red cooler. It was pretty simple but still quite functional, so it seemed like the perfect guinea pig for this idea.

Next I needed to gather the supplies, and luckily I had several at home already. Here’s my list of what was needed for this project:

Things I used to transform my cooler


  • Brown Kraft paper (or butcher paper)
  • Cardboard
  • Duct tape
  • White Glue
  • Short brass nails
  • Polyeurathane/Stain
  • Hinges
  • Scissors, screwdriver (for hinges), hammer (for nails), foam brush (for stain)
  • Permanent marker
  • Optional: Leather cord (to wrap around handles), black acrylic paint (to paint handles), brass handles (to replace existing handles)

Step 1: I cleaned up my cooler and took off the hinges. I would have also liked to have taken off the handles, but they are molded plastic and I could find no way to pry them off. But if you can take them off, now’s the time. Also, if your cooler has writing (like mine did) or strange indentations or ridges that you do not want to show through your paper, cover them now with duct tape. I covered up the writing on the front, plus the obvious cooler-like ridge pattern on the lid.

Tip: If you cannot remove your handles, consider painting them black or brown before you move on to step 2 — it’ll make it easier and look better.

Step 2: Tear the brown kraft paper by hand into sections about 4″x 4″ or so — not too small, not too big. You’ll also want to tear some paper near the edge of the roll where the straight side is, as you’ll use those straight sides for the edges of the cooler. Tear lots and lots of paper, more than you think you’ll need.

Step 3: Prepare the glue. In a wide, large bowl, I mixed several bottles of white school glue with water in a 1:2 ration (one part glue, two parts water). In the end, I used about 3 bottles of glue ($1 each at the office supply store).

Step 4: Cut out strips from your cardboard, about 3″ wide and as tall as your cooler. You’ll probably need six strips — two for the front, two for the top, and two for the back. These will become your chest straps.

Step 5: Soak the torn paper in the glue for at least a minute (you can put several in at a time so you always have one ready to go), slough off the extra glue, then place the paper on the cooler, smoothing it out as you go. Repeat, overlapping the edges of previously-placed pieces of paper by at least a half and inch. Continue until the outside of the cooler is completely covered (I didn’t bother doing the bottom). Also cover the cardboard strips you cut out in step 4, make sure to wrap the paper around the straps securely.

Note: Make sure your paper is well soaked in glue before placing it, or it won’t dry flat and will buckle and ripple.

Covering the cooler with paper

Step 6: Put the cooler and straps somewhere dry, ideally an air-conditioned room. If you leave it outside on a humid day to dry, the paper is more likely to curl and buckle as it dries.

Step 7: Once everything is dry, check for loose paper and glue it down again. You can use some of your undiluted white glue, or if your paper is stubborn, something stronger. Then place the straps into place on the cooler (you’ll want to set the top on it so you can make sure the straps on the front and back line up with those on the top), then nail it in using the finishing nails. It will take a bit of effort to get them into the plastic sides of the cooler — I cut out a small nail guide from a piece of cardboard to hold the nail while I pounded it in.

Step 8: Brush on the polyeurathane/stain using the foam brush, going past the edges to really seal the paper to the cooler. Allow to dry at least 24 hours.

Seal the edges of the paper well

Step 9: Check again for loose bits of paper and glue them down, and optionally sand any rough bits of polyeurathane. Put on another coat and allow to dry another 24 hours.

Tip: Put a third coat on the top of the cooler, if you have time — you know people will put things on the top, sit on it, whatever. The extra coat will give it a bit more protection.

Step 10: Attach the new hinges.

New brass hinges for the cooler

Step 11: Wrap the handles with leather cord, gluing the ends in place.

I painted my handle and wrapped it in cord

Step 12: Close the lid and look for any bits of cooler showing through, usually at the edges. Use the permanent marker to cover the show-through.

Use a black permanent marker to cover any white bits at the edges.

Voila! A cooler cooler!

My New Cooler Cooler

Now this cooler isn’t going to win any awards — it’s a wee rough around the edges. But I rather like that — it looks like an old, beatup, leather trunk. I think it is way cooler than a bright red cooler, and I won’t have to throw a blanket over it while camping.

Again, many thanks for Ceallach mac Donal for the idea!

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4 Comments to “Our Cooler Cooler: How We Turned a Boring, Mundane Cooler Into an Old Treasure Chest”

  1. I have an old blue cooler that just might have to get this treatment! Very cool indeed!

  2. This is a great tutorial! I just completed my own “cooler cooler” using your instructions as a guide, you can check it out on my blog at http://poppyseedroll.blogspot.com/2012/06/10-foot-rule.html

  3. How water proof does this turn out? I would assume quite waterproof, being sealed like it is, but I thought I’d ask.

    • Genoveva von Lübeck

      It’s pretty good — the cooler got rained on a number of times at Pennsic last year and still looks great. But it’s not going to last if you submerge it in water, as the water would find its way under the paper somehow, I’m sure.

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