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  • Writer's pictureMonica Montanari

A Lateral Filing Cabinet Makeover- Every Step of the Way

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

This is a sub-part of part 3 of a 5 part series on small business moving and design. To read the entire series, click here.


My inspiration for this project came from Joan of Scavenger Chic. Thank you very much, but you made this sound way easier than it really was.

Maybe if you know what you're doing, this really is a piece of cake. But for those of us who have barely handled sandpaper, this project can prove to be quite a challenge.

Let's go step by step in "dummy" format, like I wish someone would have done with me. This is EVERYTHING you will need to know in order to do this project, even if you (like me before this project) have never dealt with carpentry before.

Disclaimer: This is NOT a weekend project if you plan to do 3 of them. Just by the nature of this nightmare, it takes a few days to get everything together. It took us about 3-4 weeks because we only worked on this on weekends, and didn't use every day fully. If you devoted every minute of every day to this project, it would probably take 2-3 days per cabinet. So plan accordingly.


Take Before Pictures

If you are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with what these are, brand new, this is what metal, lateral, 5-drawer filing cabinets look like:

Call it my opinion, but I think it's basically fact: those things are UGLY. Ours had at least 13 years of wear and tear on them- maybe even 35. So as you can imagine, they were somehow even uglier than this heap of junk. But, seeing as we would be getting rid of our metal filing shelves (BYE FELICIA), we were going to need a lot of storage.

My boss/dad isn't a picky guy, but he specifically asked for covered storage; I guess he got sick of staring at all of the papers every time he walked into the kitchen. Our kitchen was and still is our central filing location- rather than lining the walls with file cabinets (eh hem, not on my watch), this was the perfect communal location to keep everything we need. Only problem? It was about a third of the size of our old kitchen.


Measure and Sketch It Out.

Get your trusty tape measure and get to work. Measure the drawers of the cabinet you're going to be covering. Filing cabinets (at least the ones we were covering) have a metal border around the entire front. Because I didn't want to have to add an unnecessary step to my project, I measured so that my doors would cover those borders, ending up flush with the edge of the cabinet. I don't think that makes sense, but I tried. Then, in order to maximize the wood sheets we were buying and ensure that nothing was wasted, I drew up cut sheets to make sure we were cutting everything efficiently when the time came. (See the sheet to the right on both photos).

Pro Tips: Keep these mock-ups/blueprints/drawings in a safe place. You'll be referring to them COUNTLESS times. Also, take pictures of them in case you lose them or don't have them on hand when you need them. If the cabinets you are doing aren't all EXACTLY the same measurements, be sure to label, very clearly, which cabinets are which. For example, we had two that were the same, and one that was just a tad different. That quarter-of-an-inch can mean a lot when the time comes, so be very careful about making sure your drawings make sense to you.


Gather Materials

Obviously, before you can start, you'll need supplies. I've put links for everything in Home Depot so you can make a one-shop stop, or order online. But cheaper options can be found elsewhere, up to you. This is everything you will need:

  1. a caulk gun (there are a ton of options, it doesn't matter which you get, but this one is a good one if you just want quick and mindless selection choices)

  2. a strong adhesive (some recommend Liquid Nails, some recommend Titebond, but we went with Gorilla Glue because of it's noted ability to work on both metal and wood)

  3. a sander (trust me, sanding paper alone will not do; you can choose an orbital or a disk, simplest option is Milwaukee- good brand, good price)

  4. sanding paper (you're going to have to get at least one coarse-grit option, i.e. 60 grit, and one fine-grit option, i.e. 300 grit; there are 1,000 types of paper, you just need to find the one that's most compatible with your sander)

  5. stain applicators (the two methods I found most successful were the foam paint brushes and staining pads)

  6. stain (for the sake of ease, you'll want a stain that includes a polyurethane sealant coat in the formula like Poly Stain- less work for you, and a lot less time. We used 'Black Cherry' to match the dark cherry woods in our office, but a mahogany with a tint of red would have probably been perfect, and less purple.)

  7. a table saw (you technically don't have to have one of these- the kind people at Home Depot will usually help you with this- but because their policies limit them from making specific cuts, sometimes it's a good idea to have one of these on hand. Plus, you never know when you'll need it again. This is a portable, cheap, and dependable one that every family should have in their garage)

  8. the sheet wood (we used the thinnest kind possible in an effort to keep our costs low and our cabinets from being 3 feet wide. I'm not entirely sure if this is the one we used, but if you head to Home Depot, all you need to look for is the huge sheets of plywood, and you'll find a 2mm option similar to this. We actually probably bought a few different kinds by going back and forth- and the stores have different pricing. So when you find what you like, take a picture of the tag, and buy a lot initially. If you don't cut into it, you can return it if you buy too much.)

  9. the wood planks (these come in every wood and every size under the sun- and depending on what you're looking for, you can choose the perfect thickness and width for your specific project- it's really whatever's to your liking. You can use molding if you even want, though it'll get expensive. We used this kind after using birch for a while because it's cheaper and absorbs more stain)

  10. gloves (you'll want these for two things- 1, so the stain doesn't get on your hands, which cheap latex gloves will work for, and 2, so that you can grip the wood and minimize the chance of splinters during transport. I went with regular latex gloves and a pair of these. You'll want a pair for every project you do from now on.)

  11. drills (you'll want a Drill Driver and an Impact Drill like this set from Milwaukee.)

  12. screws (for the file cabinets we pretty much only used one screw, apart from the ones that already come on the cabinets. We used Builder Teks Self-Tapping Screws in 3/4". They were the perfect length and super sturdy. )

  13. handles (you can choose any hardware you like- but because of our antique English theme, I chose these ones from Amazon. Depending on how many you want per drawer- and don't forget, they're heavy- or the look you're going for, you'll want to make sure you order enough. In our case, we needed 30.)

  14. multi-surface acrylic paint (you'll need to find a color that matches your wood- and more than likely, you're going to have to mix it yourself. I recommend FolkArt Multi-Surface Satin Acrylic. If you prefer a matte, sparkly, or glossy finish, those are available, too.)

Pro Tips: If you wash the stain out of the applicator/s you use, you'll be able to use the applicator again and again. Leave the stain on too long, and it'll become a hard statue. Keep in mind that all different woods will take stain differently. Some take a lot of it, others don't. The same stain will be ten different colors on each type of wood, so make sure you test it out to make sure you like how the color looks when it is dry before applying it everywhere.


Make the Cut(s)

Now, with that beautiful table saw you've acquired, owned, or borrowed, you're going to cut out the pieces that you've previously measured and planned for. I highly recommend you have someone teach you how to use a table saw first, or have someone who knows what they're doing get this part done. (THANK YOU DAVID)

Pro tips: If you have the cabinet near you, you can try the doors on while you cut them out. Not necessary, but if it's convenient, you should do it. Don't forget that if you're going to make your new drawer covers cover the borders, you need to have that extra measurement. Mark out your measurements in pencil on the back of the wood, and then label what measurement it is (i.e. 46"x 18.5" or 1.56" x 43.5") This will come in handy especially when you're trying to figure out what piece goes where. Some tiny measurement discrepancies will undoubtedly be present, and this will save you the trouble of "was this the piece for the top border or the bottom border or the slidey drawer thing in the middle?".


Have a Fitting and Glue-Fest

Now that you're back with them, give those old metal file cabinets a good sanding- I'd recommend a coarse-grit paper, although David might recommend a fine-grit paper. Either way, you should be fine. Just give those metal surfaces a quick sand down and you'll be good to go.

Now's the time to apply some glue and stick your wood pieces to the drawers. Make sure that if they're not doing to allow each other to open, you sand them down to the point where they'll work. If your wood ends up being a little too long (which is far better than a little too short), make one edge of the file cabinet have all the hangover edges, so you don't have to sand down both sides. (Does that make sense?)

Pro Tips: We worked with our cabinets both ways- laying down and standing up. We found in our experience that working with the cabinets standing up is actually better, because if you lay the cabinet down, the drawers will become ever so slightly concave in the middle, making your wood not stick very well. You don't need to glue these pieces on as if it's the only thing between your head and a falling piece of wood- when we screw in the border pieces later, it'll add an extra level of security to everything we're adding to these file cabinet drawers.


Sand It Down

Get used to it, because you'll be doing this too many times to count, if you're anything like me.



Note the question mark. This was THE debate between David and I. Apparently, I'm all instant-gratification, so I wanted to apply the stain to these pieces of wood before we applied the border pieces. So I stained the drawers, then the border pieces, then put them together. According to David, that's not the way it's done. According to David, you're supposed to get everything all together and then stain as the very last step. To me, that sounded like a lot of uncontrolled drips and uneven color. So...

Pro Tip: Do whatever you want. Except listen to me because I was proven to be pretty right. Stain first, then assemble.


Attach Borders

The first step to this will be to disassemble the filing cabinet. You'll want to unscrew the front of each drawer that now has a wooden face glued to it. It just takes a Phillips screwdriver. While the drawers should all be uniform, I labeled ours and put the hardware in the corresponding drawer just in case. That's probably an extra step I didn't need to do, but whatever. For this part of the project, you'll need the screws I listed above (3/4" Self-Tapping Screws).

Pro Tips: The way we found easiest to do this was to set the wood-clad metal door upside down on top of the border piece, line everything up perfectly, and then cut the pieces to fit and screw them in from the back. Make sure it's super tight, and use 3 screws for each longer piece of border, and 2 for the shorter ones. By the way, I learned the hard way that you don't want to go too far out into the middle of the drawer. I accidentally drilled a hole in the middle of one of the doors that way. Oops. Also, the tape in the photo below served no purpose as far as I remember, so don't worry about that.


Secure the Handles

As I said before, you can choose any hardware you like. We chose some antique-looking brass finish handles so that we could make the same hardware functional for both the file cabinets and the kitchen cabinets. The screws that came with these specific handles were extra long- so we needed to cut them and then file the edges to make them perfect.

Pro tip: Because the drawers become so hefty once everything is attached, we decided to put two handles on each drawer.


Screw 'em Back On

This is point at which you get to put those beautiful new doors back onto the roll-out drawers of the filed cabinet. Don't be afraid if they don't fit perfectly, because we're going to....


Sand It Down (Again)

It doesn't seem to matter how diligently you measure or plan, the reality is that you're just going to have to sand down some of the tops of some drawers and some of the bottoms of others so there remains enough room to close and open drawers without scraping them together.


Stain (Again)

As you may have assumed, in that sanding process, you'll lose a bit of the stain on some of your wood. Use a small paintbrush to apply stain on any areas that are missing it. Do your best to blend the edges in with the remaining stain so that it isn't too obvious. I did this with my finger-pads, but you can use a rag or whatever else you see fit.



This is the last step (well, should be- as you can see I did it earlier), but one of the most important. You won't even believe what a difference this makes. In order to give your cabinets the finishing touch, you'll want to mix some multi-purpose acrylic paint together to match the darkest part of your stain. For our cabinets, that meant a mixture of about 60% brown, 20% black, 10% purple, and 10% red. This paint is what you're going to use to paint the metal part of each drawer (where the wood and the metal meet and are still visible- see the before photo below). You can choose to paint all of the sides of each drawer (as opposed to stain), or you can just paint the metal that is still visible. That's up to you. I also painted the metal that was visible on the side when you open the drawer, too. That way, the only metal showing was the metal inside of the drawer.

Pro tip: allow these to dry FULLY before you close each drawer. Otherwise, the drawer will stick to the paint, the paint sticks to the metal, and something will get ripped off somewhere.



Sure, if you're anything like me, you'll find 800 things wrong that you need to fix and need hours to perfect every little tiny thing (I'm still not done). But, most places don't make lateral filing cabinets a project done with lots of heart is worth infinitely more than anything you can buy. Plus, it's rare to find somewhere that you can buy wood lateral filing cabinets with as much space as these allow for files.

What's next? Check in with Part 3 of the series.

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