How to buy a filing cabinet

blue filing cabinetLast week I brought a filing cabinet to the dump. I was very happy to see it go.

I bought that cabinet on a whim. It was cheap, small and seemed perfect for what I needed. Less than a year later, it had one drawer that wouldn’t close and four others that had become junk drawers. I hated it, ignored it and used its top to stack papers. It had to go and, more importantly, it taught me how to properly buy a filing cabinet.

Today, I know what makes a perfect filing cabinet for me. Here’s what I found.

First and foremost, it must fit all of the documents I wish to file and fit into the allotted space in my home office. My work space is a small, second-floor room in a house with dormers, so there’s not a lot of wall space available. Therefore, a traditional vertical cabinet is for me. Perhaps a horizontal cabinet will work best in your space. This really is a crucial first step, so make this decision your starting point.

When I say “it must fit,” I mean both physically and within my workflow. Vertical and horizontal cabinets are used differently. A vertical cabinet is most traditional and features two to five drawers. Contents run front to back and face the user. There’s a lot of internal space, but files aren’t easy to get at. A vertical cabinet is a good choice for archival or reference files you don’t look at often.

A horizontal cabinet takes up more wall space and offers more interior space than vertical models. The benefit is their contents are much easier to access, so if you’ve got to get at files several times per day, a horizontal cabinet is a great choice.

Finally, I make sure my cabinet is within “swivel distance” of my desk. Human beings tend to follow the path of least resistance, so I make it as easy as possible to put something in my filing cabinet: just swivel my chair.

Next, a cabinet must be durable. That is to say, I don’t want to be stuck with that one drawer that won’t open unless you yank on it (or shut unless you slam it), the wonky wheel or busted handle. Much of this depends on what the cabinet is made of. The most common materials are metal and wood.

A metal cabinet can stand up to years of use and still look good. They are also easy to maintain and come in colors other than the plain beige you’re probably envisioning right now. They’re also easy to paint, so feel free to make it your own. When shopping for a metal cabinet, make sure it has a protective coating to prevent rust and double-walled steel sides for durability. No, metal filing cabinets are not flashy, but they do their job well.

Wooden cabinets look great and come in a huge variety of styles. They’re less durable than their steel counterparts, but if you’re in a low-volume office or a home setting, you’ll have it for years before it shows signs of wear. For a high-volume setting, where you’re in and out of drawers all day, go with a metal model.

If your chosen filing cabinet sits directly on the floor, consider placing it on a wheeled caddy. This can be very helpful when you need to move the cabinet to clean behind it or rescue your favorite pen.

Safety is another consideration. First, I want to keep my documents safe. If you’ll be filing important documents, like a birth certificate or social security card, consider a fire proof cabinet or one that locks (or both). I like to keep these things off-site in a safe deposit box, but if you must store them at home, make sure they’re safe.

I also want to be sure that anyone who uses the cabinet is safe. Look for interlocking drawers that will prevent tipping when multiple drawers are open at once. Additionally, cabinets with ball-bearing suspension systems will open reliably for years, so no wonky drawers that you yank open in frustration, risking injury.

Style, structure and safety are very important when looking for a filing cabinet, but easily overlooked. Like any tool you introduce to your workflow, a filing cabinet should be taken seriously. Happy shopping and let us know what you end up with.

5 Comments for “How to buy a filing cabinet”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    Filing cabinets are often best bought used. Large corporations and governments buy high-quality furniture like Steelcase which may have plenty of life left in it even after years of service, especially with a new coat of paint.

    You may have good luck with spray paint but here are companies that refinish metal office furniture; they can make it look like new in any color you prefer. And if you need keys for the locks you can order them from the manufacturer.

  2. posted by Gwen on

    I’m planning to buy a cabinet too for my stuff. Since I have a tiny space, I prefer more vertical space so I think a filing cabinet would be perfect. Great article.

  3. posted by Pat on

    For me, aesthetics are important. I can’t bear ugly stuff. I know that for me ugly puts me off using things, so when I bought a filing cabinet I purchased an attractive but sturdy wooden one on wheels.

  4. posted by Claire on

    I will say make SURE you really do need a filing cabinet before you buy one. Do you really need all of those papers? If you do need them, can you digitize them and discard the paper? The small 2-drawer cabinets are easy to get rid of if you don’t need them, but the larger ones are a pain to get rid of. They are bulky & difficult to transport, and the only thing you can do with them is donate them or try to give it away. Office surplus stores will not buy them (at least in my area).

  5. posted by Gabby on

    We had a metal filing cabinet for a while (ten years actually) and it really stood the test of time. We just bought a new one from Crowley Furniture Stores ( ) and it has more visual appeal than our old one. I can agree that the metal ones are sturdy, but they’re not necessarily pleasing to the eye.

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