DIY Cooler (Part 1)

Or: An adventure to find a ice chest what doesn’t look like modern industrial excrement

There’s a certain exciting feeling when you walk into a period camp. Wow, look at this, and look at that! What’s going on over here? It’s like a period movie without all the boils and 90% less dysentery. Know what ruins that feeling? Looking at people cooking over an open fire with a pile of modern brightly colored plastic coolers tossed behind them in a forgotten corner.

I know, there are lots of ways around this: Going full-period and getting rid of even century-old ice-based food preservation (tell that to the food budget and the horde of starving, picky kids). Painting over the bright colors (so now they look like dirty MIE coolers). Putting the MIE inside a tent (where they take up precious dry space and are now super inconvenient to get at).

One of the more skillful examples I’ve seen is where people take a modern cooler and build a wooden box around it. Even the best executed examples still look like a plastic cooler inside a wooden box. And if you’re already going to the trouble to make a wooden box, is there a way to kick it up a notch?

Its really not that big a deal to make a wooden box and line it with insulation. But that exposed insulation is 1) not durable and would get chewed up right quick and 2) not watertight, all that melting ice is going to make a big mess of your wooden box. Hand-vacuum forming a deep plastic liner seems like a royal pain and outside the capabilities of most home workshops. Forming a metal liner is even more of a pain and expensive to boot.

But, there is a potential solution! In recent years there has been a great expansion of options for paint-on/spray-on waterproof coatings. Spray-on bedliners, rubberized coatings in a can, all relatively inexpensive and easy to get. But, will it work?

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Temperature Controlled Beer Box

I have “wisely” decided to bend my 20 years of on-and-off winemaking experience towards brewing beer; on one hand, starting simple by using extract-only recipes, but also skipping the whole bottle conditioning mess and going straight to forced carbonation. This seems simpler to me, having dealt for decades for sediment in wine bottles and wishing to not do any of that with beer. Also, experiences with others’ home-brewed beer have somewhat discouraged me from trying beer…If I want a beer, I just want a beer…Not a beer with special pouring instructions. Hence: forced carbonation.

As I’ve learned, forced carbonation works best if the beer and CO2 are kept cold. Now, having a family and right after hunting season, there’s not nearly enough room or family tolerance for emptying the fridge in order to stuff a keg in there. I could always just put it outside, but that’s not exactly a recipe for consistent temperature, and only really practical for 3-4 months out of the year. A separate device specifically for this seems like the best solution to this plan that doesn’t involve emptying the kitchen fridge. Now if we’re going through the bother of making a device that can cool a keg-sized object, if we add a little more technology so it can controls both heating and cooling, then we can use this device anywhere, any time of year, and not only for carbonating but also controlling fermentation temps, and even chilling kegs for serving. Yeah? Follow where I’m going?

Something like this has got to cost a fortune, right? Well, a few hundred, if you go out and buy some commercial unit. I don’t even know if I’m going to like making beer, so let’s keep it under $100.


Used small chest freezer from Craigslist: $40

Dual-acting temperature controller: $35

Heat lamp:$12

Lamp socket, lamp cord and other random bits from the shed

The rest is easy. Drill holes in the lid to accommodate the cord and mounting screws for the light socket and wire it up. The inside lid of this freezer was only thin plastic and wouldn’t hold the socket on its own with screws , so I used 3″ #10 bolts all the way through the lid. If the outside of your freezer is sheet metal, make sure to deburr the edges, especially where the heater cord comes through, you wouldn’t want those sharp edges cutting into the cord and shorting it out.

Tighten down the socket, add the IR heat lamp, find a convenient place to put the temperature probe. Legend has it that the best place for the sensor is right in the middle. I figure this is good enough, as long as you’re not expecting temperature control down to the individual degree.

And look! It fits a 5 gallon corny keg perfectly. Actually, it looks like it might fit three kegs and a CO2 cylinder!

Close the lid, plug the freezer and lamp cord into the temperature controller. Add some double stick tape and cable management to tidy things up and Bob’s your uncle.

There you have it: for less than $90, a temperature controlled box, good for fermenting your creation of choice, carbonating your drinky-drink, curing your homemade sausages, warming a metric ton of hotdog buns, the possibilities are endless!

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