How to: Paint a Metal File Cabinet

I wrote this post a couple of months ago for something else, but it ended up getting bumped, so now I’m sharing it here! Yay, another how-to!

So we all know my struggle with our “office space” and how having just one more room in our apartment would make our lives infinitely better, right? Well, for the time being, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. So I’ve had to get creative with how we use our space and what our storage options are.

Our cheap-o desk from Target had a single file drawer, but I found we were less inclined to use it (and therefore less organized) because it was so jam-packed. It was obvious that we needed a better option, but even the most basic white metal file cabinet was going to run us $159-300. Not going to happen.

As always, I turned to Craigslist to see if I could find a cheaper version. Unfortunately, most of the cabinets for sale were either ugly (dingy, awful colors) or rusted or both. Not wanting to give up completely, I did a quick search to see if it was possible to makeover a metal cabinet and found quite a few tutorials.

My mind was made up. Here’s how I gave a $15 filing cabinet new life for under $40.

1. Here’s what I started with. Let’s call him Fillip. Pretty awful, right? Especially that rusted-out bottom corner.

Fillip was living a pretty sad life in someone’s damp basement. He was originally listed for $30 on Craigslist, but I told the seller I could pick him up the same day for $15, and he became mine.

2. Next, Fillip got a serious rub-down with some sandpaper. I started with a heavier grit to remove the rust (and a TON of dirt…it was gross), then followed up with a finer grit to smooth things out. (Shout-out to my awesome father-in-law for letting me borrow his backyard and drop cloth!)

3. After wiping away the powdery substance that I sanded, it was time to prime. I used Rustoleum Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Primer in white because the package said it would cling well to metal and help stop rust, which, obviously young Fillip needed. I only needed one can of primer to cover the cabinet and drawer fronts, and I still had some leftover. (Note: Be sure to remove or cover any hardware, such as handles, locks, and plates, with tape. In the case of Fillip, his plates still had their original protective covers, so that saved some time.)

4. After letting the primer cure for the full 24 hours, it was time to paint!Β Here’s what I used. He’s starting to look so handsome, right?

I let the paint cure for 48 hours so the cabinet could off-gas and my apartment wouldn’t reek of spray paint fumes. Then it was time to take him home!

Doesn’t he look pretty in his new corner? Even better, we can now use the old file drawer to store stationery and craft materials that previously had no home.

Here’s a breakdown of the costs:

File cabinet: $15
Rustoleum Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch 2X 12 oz. White Primer: $4
Rust-Oleum 12 Oz. Gloss White 2X Painter’s Touch Spray Paint: $5 x 2 cans = $10
Sandpaper: $5
Total: $34

I mean, he’s not perfect. Those drawers don’t slide completely straight for some reason, and I still need to fully organize the inside. But it’s still a major improvement. (And I saved $100-250 compared to what I would have paid buying him new.) Not bad, eh?

Anyone else have any project they’re working on?


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45 thoughts on “How to: Paint a Metal File Cabinet

  1. I’m a little disappointed; I think it was a wasted opportunity. You could have painted subtle stripes, given it a chevron facing or even painted the drawers facings a different color. Although it’s much better than before, you still spent a lot of time and effort for a plain white file cabinet. (Obviously, just my opinion) : )

    • Fair point, Renee! For me, I already have a lot of patterns going on in my living room, so I try to keep the big pieces of furniture more neutral. (Plus, as anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I change my mind way to much to invest too much time or money in something that I’ll probably want to tweak down the line!) This was my first endeavor in painting metal furniture, so the how-to was intended as instructions on the basic. The steps could obviously be tweaked to incorporate any of the details you mentioned. And fortunately for me, it really didn’t take all that much effort! That’s the best part of a simple DIY πŸ™‚

  2. What an awesome idea, I find them pretty cheap at the thrift stores and never buy them because they look so crappy. This will be a fun project and I bet I can make it bright and annoying for my office. Yesss! Thanks lady!! Awesome job!

    • Thanks! I love the bright color idea. If I had a simpler living room, I think a yellow or turquoise one would be super fab, too!

  3. I’m getting ready to repaint a metal bar set that is on the downstairs patio. I just washed it down with soapy water to get rid of spider webs and the like. It is ready for the spray paint part. So, here we go!! Thanks for the encouragement. I can do it!

  4. I’ve had an old rusted file cabinet sitting around for too long-I’m heading out today to get the sandpaper and primer! It helps so much to see what you have done and how you did it. Thanks for sharing:)

  5. Nice how to I am going to attack an old Southwestern Bell metal cabinet soon. Now girl attack that desk chair and blog about it πŸ™‚

    • Ha! I actually ended up selling both the desk and the chair (they really were not that pretty!). I’ll blog soon about what our desk area looks like now πŸ™‚

  6. I’m curious – did you spray paint the hardware, too? In the picture of the primer, it looks like you did, but in the “finished” photos it looks like the hardware is the plain metal. I’m curious to know if (and how!) you removed or replaced the hardware.

    • Hi Elizabeth! I removed the handles before spray painting, but the lock and nameplate I just covered with this sticky plastic to cover them before I painted. A little but of paint seeped through, but you can scrape it off pretty easily. Hope that helps!

  7. If my cabinets are new, but an awful black…do I still need to sand them before priming and painting? GREAT idea to add some life to my boring office! Thank you!

    • Hey there! I would, just because otherwise you might have a harder time getting the primer/paint to stick. But it probably depends on the type of primer you use. They should be able to tell you in the hardware store.

  8. I love this and I like the white because it goes with everything. I have an old 2-drawer file cabinet – no rust – that we had marked $10 and put in a garage sale and no one bought it. Now I realize my long, flat, padded jewelry boxes FIT into the drawers. Painted white inside and out -the better to see what is inside – and placed in my closet, I have a great, low-cost jewelry cabinet!

  9. Do you HAVE to give it primer if it’s not rusted and won’t be outside? Have limited time to repaint my classroom cabinet… OR, throw fabirc over it until the weekend….


    • I think you’ll need the primer to make the new paint color stick to the metal surface, but you could probably skip sanding if you need to.

  10. I purchased 3 MC Call’s Pattern cabinets from Mc Call’s Distribution 12 years ago. I sanded them down lightly, and used primer on them. Then
    I painted them with a Latex commercial grade paint that they use on door
    frames and doors. I used a dark teal to match in my sewing room. I used a thick roller and painted the whole thing with this roller. It gave the paint a slight texture look. I have used these in my sewing room to store notions and fabric for 12 years now and the paint has not come off. I Love them.
    Always quilting!

  11. How has the paint held up? We are thinking of doing this same thing and are wondering if the paint will scratch off easily.

    • It has held up really well! I wrote that post almost two years ago, and there have been no scratches at all.

  12. Would you recommend sealing it with anything after you finish the painting part? I am painting a file cabinet right now, but wondering if it needs sealing since its a high traffic piece.

  13. This is wonderful. I have the exact same cabinet That I inherited from my mom and it’s so ugly I have it tucked away completely unused, even though I got it because I need it. Now I can make it pretty and useful! Thank you for this tutorial!

  14. This file cabinet looks great! I’m curious about the rust, though. Did all the sanding remove the rust completely, or did you just paint the primer over any remaining rust? Great job!

    • I removed as much as I could with the sander, but the remainder I painted over with primer and then paint. I’ve had it for years now, and the rust has never come through!

  15. I just bought all the products to do this! But I was wondering, does the paint leave that “sticky” feel? Or is it a smooth finish like the original color.

  16. Thank you for the filing cabinet painting instructions. I’m doing one tomorrow. You said you’re having a problem with the drawers; switch them or check if they need to be in slots. In the before picture the drawers fit perfectly. I hope this helps. ;-]

    • Thanks, Linda! I actually did this a couple of years ago when we moved, and lo and behold, the drawers did fit perfectly when switched! Too bad I didn’t know you in 2012 πŸ˜‰

  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am re-doing my office/library and I have a metal 5-drawer army green filing cabinet I am going to paint to match my desk. The basic desk is Sherwin-Williams Wool Challis – sort of a very, very pale yellow – and the drawers are Tuscany Blue – basically turquoise. The file cabinet will be Wool Challis and the drawers Tuscany Blue. If I knew how to add pictures I would, so when I finish I will Pin it for all to see. Thank you for the tutorial.

  18. I love this!! I bought a filing cabinet for $7 (YES, $7!!!) today at Goodwill and am wanting to paint it and put it in my craft room. I will definitely use your steps to do my makeover. I think I am either going to paint it a mint green or hot pink. Wish me luck!! πŸ˜‰

  19. Okay so I’m confused on the steps. You have a couple different paints and primers. Can you tell me what’s first. Second. Third? Thanks

  20. Justine, do you think the sanding is necessary if the cabinet doesn’t have any rust? I want to use white like you did, but make the drawers each a different bright color to match a storage unit I’ve put together. Mine is a 4 drawer cabinet so I hope it will free up a bunch of space in my craft/sewing room!! Love your instructions!

    • Probably not totally necessary if you have a good primer, but it will help the paint grip a bit more.

  21. Thank you for sharing this post! My husband just called me from work to tell me he fished a four drawer filing cabinet our of the dumpster at work thinking I might be able to use it after cleaning it up. I’m excited to paint it something fun! Your tips will be a lifesaver.

  22. Hi,
    Thanks for you instructions and tips!!
    I just purchased a tall 4 drawer filing cabinet (for $10. score!!) and it is in good shape, only a little rust spot on the top drawer. I was just looking at it and the drawers don’t seem to want to come out. Is there a trick to getting them out??
    Thanks again for sharing your project!

  23. I want to remove the metal rectangle piece of file drawers. Do you know how to get them off ?

  24. Wonder if switching the drawers would make them slide properly.. Thanks for the post, saw it on Pinterest!

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