The Icebox: Can It Be Saved?

The Icebox: Can It Be Saved?

Article and pictures by David Handke, Campurist LLC

The vintage trailer icebox. Some embrace its simplicity, while others turn from ice to propane or electricity for refrigeration. I don’t mind using those; however, there are a few things I did to my icebox to freshen it up and make it less hungry for ice. Every situation is different, but what follows is the project this icebox made for me.

The 1948 Fairway Deluxe I’m working on came complete and original. I like to work on appliances first as it’s good to know early what can be saved or need sourcing, because the cabinet openings need to match the appliances. For the icebox, it did not take long after liberating it from the kitchen cabinet that I began to question whether it could be saved. 

Now on the bench, I noticed the icebox insulation was fiberboard: at a half inch thickness, its insulating value was a pathetic R-1. Making matters worse, it was emitting that classic “old camper” smell. It’s the aroma of attic dust, damp cellar, a hint of mouse, and old dried dishrag. Not a smell for a restored trailer! The weak R-value and the smell made the decision easy to pull the insulation off. The smell problem will be solved! As the insulation lifted, my elation melted as a completely rusted icebox shell revealed itself. Wonderful - Is this a rust-bomb that’s about to fall apart?

To find out, I gave the exterior metal a cost-effective, yet labor intensive, drubbing with a wire brush and wheel. I figured a rusty pinhole in the shell or worse would break through if rust had gotten the better of the metal. The wheel revealed only solid metal, so with a bit of relief, the project continued. And the project grew. Now hours beyond what I thought it would take to spiff up this little icebox, a new concern cropped up. Can this rust be made to go away and not come back?

The surface rust was banished with a three-step kit that cleaned treated and sealed the metal. The cabinet space allowed for thicker insulation, so one-inch R-5 closed cell foam insulation was used. With five times the insulating value, rust-making condensation should be reduced, and the ice should last much longer. I consider this change one that enhances usability while keeping the vintage trailers character. My focus shifted to inside the icebox.

The ice block shelf had damage that went beyond patina. It bugged me enough to pressure the metal to move closer to its original shape by using wood blocks and C-clamps. 

With the icebox shell reconditioned, my attention turned to the door and the hardware.The icebox door looked like it hadn’t been wiped down during its 72-years with the trailer. After multiple scrubbings with various household cleaners and kitchen ingredients, the icebox door was brighter but still looked like it belonged in a haunted house. On a high note, the interior paint held its age well and the door gasket was intact and quite spry. Just the outside needed paint. I didn’t prep it beyond cleaning to allow the door’s patina to show through.

Before choosing paint colors, I researched vintage trailer iceboxes and even old refrigerators. A variety of colors beyond white were used. If you’re maintaining a vintage look, try to match your icebox color to one similar to a vintage automotive or kitchen appliance color. 

While the paint dried, the forlorn door hardware received a little love.The decision to re-use vintage hardware can come down to two parameters: function and finish. Many times, a bit of lubrication will bring back the functionality of a part. As for the finish, is the damage just patina or just putrid? Things can be done to drag a putrid look back to a patina look! On this hardware, Super fine grade 0000 steel wool brought the pitted, rusty chrome back from its putrid state to a usable look. Spray on clear sealants can by applied to maintain a shine.

With all the project surprises dealt, the re-invigorated icebox will be introduced to its equally re-invigorated home and can bump around the country keeping the camp meals and beverages chilled for another 70 years!