It’s the time of the year where high school girls get ready for prom, and college girls get ready for the better version of prom, Formal. If you are friends with, know of, or are related to anyone involved in Greek life at their university, chances are you may have seen the cooler prep purchasing frenzy begin on all channels of their social media. I am warning you now, this project isn’t for the faint of heart, as you will more than likely be giving up countless hours of sleep and accepting sore muscles from sitting in bizarre positions for at least a few days, more likely weeks.

Why Do We Paint Coolers?

In order to undertake this project, you need to either really love to craft, or really like the person you’re crafting for. Traditionally, painted coolers are given to someone in a fraternity who asks you to his formal, as a thank you for asking, and for buying you food. I have also seen them given for twenty-first birthdays, other Greek events, or just as gifts. They can definitely be given to anyone, of any age, Greek life or not, because you never know when you’ll need a cooler for impromptu beach trips or picnics in the park!

How Much Does It Cost?

Cooler painting is NOT cheap. I spent probably about $150-200 on my first cooler, but once you have all the supplies, much of it can be reused for future cooler painting projects. If you’re a crafty person, you may have some of the supplies necessary and that can help cut costs. If you have a friend who wants to paint one as well, splitting the cost of paints, paintbrushes, sealant, etc can help limit the costs too.

So How Do I Do It?

  • Gather your supplies:
    1. Cooler: The kind of cooler you pick is really up to you. I picked up a Igloo 48-Quart Breeze Ice Chest at Walmart for a little under $20, which is relatively standard. If it looks difficult to paint, it probably is.
    2. Sandpaper:  I used a coarse grain sandpaper to file it off, and then a fine grain to smooth out all the bumps. I did it by hand, but it would definitely be faster to use a handheld sanding machine. 
    3. Primer: I used Krylon White Gloss Fusion Spray Paint, it’s about $4 at Walmart and if you are painting a standard size cooler you WILL need two bottles. I promise. 
    4. Mod Podge: Matte finish or Gloss, it’s up to you. I just used the standard. Get the largest bottle available.
    5. Weatherproofing sealant: One bottle each of polycrylic and polyurethane sealant.
    6. Spackle (optional): to fill in brand stamps on coolers
    7. Pencil
    8. Paint Pens
    9. Acrylic Paint
    10. Stencils or Images for your designs
    11. Paintbrushes
    12. Cardstock
    13. Exacto Knife
  • Spackling (optional): To get a smooth surface, I used spackle to cover up the igloo logo indented into the front. This is not required, but it definitely makes it easier to paint later on, and I think it looks much better. Let the spackle dry overnight, and make sure you wear a face mask when applying so you don’t inhale it as spackle can be dangerous!
  • Sanding: Once your spackle has dried overnight, use your coarse and fine grain sandpaper to sand down the plastic and smooth the spackle so it is smooth with the rest of the surface. Wear a facemask or you will be inhaling dust from the cooler and the spackle, which is really bad for your lungs and potentially toxic. When you are done, dust off the cooler and make sure there are no rough patches before starting the next step.
  • Prime: Using your Krylon primer, lay down a tarp and use the spray primer to cover all surfaces on your cooler. Make sure to spray carefully and from a distance to avoid dripping. Let this dry overnight as well before you begin painting.

The cooler drying after being primed

  • Design: You should really pick out a design before purchasing any paint, so you know what colors you will need, but if you’re like me and have trouble committing, you can buy some primary colors, fraternity colors, school colors, etc. Just some basic things to get you started. I bought a large bottle of black paint as well, because my ideas had black backgrounds for the most part and I wanted to have enough paint. Some good things to include are names, dates, university names, fraternity letters/crests/symbols, theme of the formal, favorite brands, movies, etc.

Black background I painted for the first side's design.

  • Paint!: Choose a base color for each design if you don’t want it to be plain white, and start painting one side at a time. Make sure to bring the base color down as far onto the bottom as possible to help prevent chipping! Once you decide on a design for the side, you can begin painting. If you’re more artistically challenged, you can choose to print off designs and modge podge them to the cooler. I decided to freehand my designs and use stencils instead, as I had a specific idea of what I wanted each side to look like. Use paint pens for the smaller details such as letters, and a small paintbrush to fill in the larger shapes. For anything I couldn’t find online, I hand drew the design onto card stock, and then cut it out with an exacto knife and traced it. Make sure to give the acrylic paint adequate time to dry in between coats. I liked to have more than one side going at a time so that while one was drying I could work on another. I used painters tape between the corners as well to keep them from looking sloppy and to make the lines crisp! Many girls paint designs on the corners to cover this up such as bowties.  This step will take the longest, so be patient, it is so worth it in the end!

I drew on my design in pencil, and then started drawing the lines with a white paint pen.

After the details had been painted in using a small paintbrush, and multiple coats of paint.

  • Sealing: This step is the most important one! If you want your cooler to last a long time when dragged to parties and the beach, and you don’t want to see your hard work chipped, careful sealing is your friend. I used three layers of modge podge over the whole thing to start (make sure you don’t get into the cracks and prevent the lid from opening!) then three layers of polycrylic sealant, and then one layer of polyurethane. The polycrylic and modge podge held keep the polyurethane from yellowing any white colors on your coolers, but do not leave out the polyurethane for this reason as it is what makes it waterproof! Give plenty of time between each coat to dry, and make sure the sealant doesn’t go on too heavy or it will dry cloudy. This is why I like to use several thin layers.

The completed side!

  • Dry time: Let your cooler dry for a full 24 hours after the last coat of sealant.
  • Fill and Give!: Traditionally coolers are presented filled with small gifts and drinks, but this is completely optional! The person you’re giving it to will be excited to have a custom cooler regardless. I chose to fill mine with some themed gifts, a bow tie, movie poster, and some drinks.

All sides after they had been completed and sealed. He was so excited!

The look on my boyfriends face when I gave it to him was priceless! It definitely made the whole process worth it. The more personal you make it, the more excited they will be, and you will definitely forget about all the paint fumes and muscle spasms you had to endure to get there.