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Rustic Cooler: A How-To

I’m smitten with rustic coolers. If you’re in the Southwest region, you’ve probably seen them at HEB or Cabelas, or pretty much any hardware store. They’re just awesome! Sadly, they retail from $100 and up (like this $279 beauty from Cunningham Living) and it wasn’t really in our budget to buy one. Yet when my dad was given a slew of barnwood from a neighbor that was moving and offered it to me, I leapt at the chance to build my own! Read more below to find out how we went from this:

To this!

All for only $30.

Supplies:
• Barn wood (try to score some for free on Freecycle or Craigslist, look for piles of lumber on the side of the road, rescue pallets, or ask someone who is replacing fencing. If you can’t find it free, or just like the new look, buy cedar fence pickets)
• 5: 2×2′s @ 8 feet long
• 1: 1×4 @ 8 feet long
• Old cooler (again, CL and Freecycle are good bets, or you can buy new, or choose to line your cooler with insulated foam. There are also very affordable styrofoam coolers that could work for this project)
• 2 1/2 inch screws
• 2 inch nails
• 3/4 inch pipe coupling
• 3/4 inch spigot
• handle (we used an antler shed, go on and get creative for your lid handles too!)
• Side handles (optional)
• Bottle Opener (optional)
• Iron Decor (optional)

This project can be as cheap as the $30 we spent, or you can buy all new supplies and get all fancy and probably spend around $80+. It’s all up to you!

Step 1: Disassemble your cooler

You’ll want to take off all the hardware on your cooler. Make sure it’s good and naked, and the lid is fully detached.

Step 2: Measure your cooler and build the sides

Measure the width, height and depth of your cooler, and determine the height you want it to be. We wanted the legs to be 30 inches so it’s about at counter height for easy drink-grabbing. Make sure you account for your 2×2′s when you do your measurements. When placing the bottom support, add 1.5 inches to the distance between the two, because you’ll be adding 2×2 supports for the cooler to sit on. So, if your cooler is 15 inches tall, place the lower support at 16.5 inches below the top. Build two sides.

Step 3: Attach the sides together to finish the frame

Once you have your two large sides built, cut 4 2×2′s at your depth measurement and attach with wood glue and 2 inch screws. Measure the distance your supports need to be for the cooler to sit on. Cut two and attach with glue and screws.

Step 4: Insert your cooler

Place your cooler into your frame. It should fit snugly without compressing the sides. We were a little off in our depth measurement, so the lid wouldn’t fit because the sides were being squished. So we quickly detached one of our long top supports and trimmed off a quarter inch with the table saw, and voila! Perfect fit. Don’t be afraid to jimmy-rig your frame, because it will be completely hidden once you’re done.

*side note* Please don’t judge my back porch. It’s a hideous mess because it’s our makeshift workshop!

Step 5: Cut your siding and attach with nails

This is where the fun begins. Now that your frame is built, you can measure how long you want your slats to be. We decided to have them overhang an inch just to cover all our bases. The wood was also a bit curved from weathering, and you’ll want to account for that. Start on each end and work toward the center, nailing down your slats with 2 inch galvanized nails. Add some glue if you want additional stability. Once you get to the center, measure the gap and cut a piece to fit. Nail slats down on both long sides, and your non-draining end.

See the overhang? It ensures that we won’t see any 2×2′s peeking out when we’re done.

Step 6: Cut drain hole and attach siding to last end

We used a 1 1/2 inch spade bit to make a hole in the center of one slat. We decided to start in the center on this end, because it didn’t seem wise to try and cut a uniform hole in the middle of two separate boards. Once your hole is cut (and you can use a jigsaw or router if you don’t have a spade bit or hole saw attachment) nail it down to your frame. Attach the remaining slats.

Step 7: Trim out the top and edges

Here’s where things start to get fancy. You need to add trim to the very top of the cooler, to hide the rim where the cooler meets the wood. Cut your pieces down to roughly 2 inches wide with a table or circular saw. We chose to do 45 degree angles, but you can keep things simple with a 90 if you like. It’s all about personal preference! Once you’re done trimming the top lip, add trim to the top and bottom, to the sides, and any decorative pieces.

Fancy trim!

Step 8: Create the lid frame

Here’s where that 1×4 finally comes in. Measure your cooler lid, and create a box around it with the 1×4. Attach with nails and glue or screws. Place the lid onto your cooler, making sure that it fits snugly. It should pop out a little lower than your frame. With the lid still in place, screw the frame into the lid so it’s secure.

Step 9: Cover the lid and add trim

I don’t have a photo for this one, because we ran out of nails and I had to go get some more. While I was gone, the Husbane forged ahead. So, what you need to do is measure the top of your frame, and cut your barnwood to fit. Nail it down into the frame. Next, measure how tall the distance is between the trim on your base to the top of your lid, and trim down your boards as required. Measure the length to cover the box, and nail into your lid frame. Add trim to the top and/or sides if you’re feeling fancy.

Step 10: Cover your legs

Measure from the bottom of your legs to the bottom of your boards. In our case, it was 15 inches. From here, I cut down a few fence slats at 15 inches tall, then ran them through my table saw to create the leg facings. On two sides, the pieces were 1.5 inches wide, and on the other two, they were 2.25 inches wide to account for the thickness of the wood. I just nailed them straight into the 2×2 legs. Add a little glue if you got some.

Step 11: Attach the hinges

You can certainly use plain Jane hinges on this, or you can splurge on fancy cabinet ones. My dad has given me a giant supply of old cabinet hinges, so I just used those. Attach to your lid first, then line it up with your base and make sure the lid fits snugly. Once fit, attach the hinges to the base of the cooler. You can see from my photos how the hinges attach on the inside and outside. It flips open with ease!

Step 12: Details, Details

This is where things really get fun. I added handles to the sides ($5 each from Hobby Lobby, I didn’t even wait for a half off day! *cringe*), and we have a bottle opener that I still need to attach with our lovely state of Texas emblazoned on it. The Husbane also plans to attach an antler shed to the top as a handle, but didn’t have time to finish it before he had to go work out of town. I really love a lot of the rustic decor you can get at places like Tractor Supply and Hobby Lobby. We may add a few things to this once my co-conspirator is back in town. I think it would look really nice with a big ol’ metal star on the front. Or perhaps a large initial for our last name? Who knows? This is just where you get to start having fun with it!

So there you have it. A rather simple tutorial on how to create your very own affordable rustic cooler from recycled materials. I can’t wait to see this one in action!

 




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  1. Ashley @ DesignBuildLove.co

    OMG! Nicely done! You guys are amazing!!!

  2. Serena

    This is awesome. Thank you!

  3. kelsey

    Brooke, you all continue to amaze me all the time!! It’s so unbelievable. I love it!!

  4. Theresa

    Thank you for posting. I have been thinking about making one of these. You did all the planning work for me. I really appreciate that. Great job. Thanks Theresa

  5. Steph @ Crafting in the Rain

    Looks fabulous–nice job!

    1. Sarah

      What a great idea! Love this. :)

  6. Diana La Point

    What a great idea. You’re right, these vintage coolers run a pretty penny, don’t they?

  7. Ruth Quick

    great idea…just a suggestion…why not stick it on castor wheels so makes it even more portable?

    1. killer b.

      We’ve thought about it, but are holding off on final details until after we move into our new place. I’d still like to decorate it a little bit, and maybe find some really rustic looking castors for it. I love the idea of being able to move it around with ease!

      1. Tom Brandt

        Drill holes in two legs for an axel and use a wheelbarrow wheel or two. Wheels can be removed when in place. I made a large picnic table, fits in a pickup, we take it to the beach, park, lake.
        Going to build one of your coolers with “modifications”, I’ll make it a 12 volt solar reefer, 12 volt solar panel + a battery………

        1. Brooke

          Great tips! The axel is a great idea. We live too far from the beach these days to make it worth toting around, but it would be great for those who are.

  8. Pamela

    This is AMAZING! PINNED just like that! So wanna come over and make me one? :) thanks!

    Pamela @ pbjstories.blogspot.com

  9. Whitney

    How did you attach this coupling and spigot? Thanks!

    1. killer b.

      Well, most coolers come with an attachment built in, so we just applied a little teflon tape around the spigot and coupling for traction, and screwed it on in there. If you only have a smooth plug (not a threaded attachment) you may want to use couplings with pipe cement to keep everything secure

  10. Deanna

    Very cool! I’m going to have my DH build me one of these before my next deck party!

  11. brittany

    wow. i am so in love with this. you guys did such a beautiful job. my husband and i made our dining table out of reclaimed wood and so i love this look. i can’t wait to show my husband this post tonight… i really think this will be our next project! the spout is so cute and creative too.

  12. Gabrielle

    Just wanted to let you know …my husband and I are making this now just have to finish the top and cover the legs…this is the cutest thing ever, thank you so much for the idea.

    1. That’s awesome! I hope you post a link, I’d love to see it!

        1. Oh my gosh, it looks FANTASTIC! Love the rough look on the wood, and your handle choice. I hope you love it!

          1. Gabrielle

            Thank you, one more thing to add, this was our first attempt to do something like this and believe me there are more than a few mistakes…the black rubber washer over the spigot … well my husband cut the hole too big and off center so that was one big hidden mistake…but we do love it…glad I found you when I googled for this. Thanks again.

  13. Annette

    My son made one of these coolers for his 4-H project this year. It works great and everybody loves it, thanks for the great idea!

    1. That’s awesome Annette!

  14. nail designs

    Hi there, You have done a fantastic job. I’ll certainly digg it and individually recommend to my friends. I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

  15. poker junkie

    great post I’m a big poker fanatic from Norway

  16. leigh

    i love this….we are going to make one next weekend, this weekend we finished up the garden shed, made it rustic with old worn wood, so this cooler is perfect!! And i love your patio…ours looks just like it cause it is our workshop too!! Thank you so much for the tutitorial!!!

  17. Syree

    I really like your rustic cooler and thanks for sharing the instructions. I am hope to get my husband to help me build one soon.

  18. leigh

    We are almost done with out cooler…..hubby took a break to go shooting at the range with our son, we will be attaching the spigot when he gets home, he forgot he promised to go shooting!!! Im so excited about it, decorating it will be fun! Nice to take a break, its 104 degrees here!!

    1. Oh that’s fabulous! We’d love to see a photo if you upload one anywhere ;) My husband cannot wait until our daughter is old enough for the range. I bet they’re having a blast!

  19. Michael Cannetti

    What did you do to keep the actual cooler top inside the lid frame??

    1. Brooke

      Ours is just wedged in tight, but you could try caulk or construction adhesive to keep it in there firmly.

  20. TULANI

    It angers me that here I am “stuck” living in the city, when I should be back on the farm, in my workshop, with all my hand & power tools, designing & building things like you folks do…8 (

    This cooler is absolutely amazingly GORGEOUS!!!
    I have seen some of the other stuff you have built & it too is Gorgeous.

    1. Brooke

      Thank you so much! And if it helps give you hope, most of my initial builds were in my city apartment in Waco. I would get the lumber pre-cut at the hardware store and drive it back in my sedan and assemble it in the living room! Eventually I bought a chop saw to use on my balcony or in the courtyard, I just asked management for permission and when would be a good time to chop some wood. It’s definitely possible to build anywhere! Though I will admit, I love having more space and an entire shop full of tools so I can get more precise cuts than the guys at the hardware store.

  21. Tammi D

    I just wanted to share that now with warmer weather, I will be trying my hand at this very soon! I have an old cooler, it was my husband’s Grandfather’s, that we will be using. I know with the new baby, that your time is scarce, but wanted to add that I miss your postings. Hope all is well!

  22. Deodua

    That is a cool concept, how many hours did it take you guys to complete it?

    1. Brooke

      About two hours start to finish

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