5 Easy Tips for Painting a Metal Filing Cabinet

A row of multi-colored metal filing cabinets.
  • 1-2 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 0-50
What You'll Need
Drop cloths
220- or 320-grit sandpaper
Paint thinner
Painter's tape
Spray primer

Don't let an old metal filing cabinet get in your way of creating more storage space in your home or office because it doesn't match your decor. You can easily re-paint a filing cabinet to match your room.

1. Prepare Your Space

Find the mask that fits you best.

First, make sure you have laid down some old fabric or drop cloths to protect the floor. Also, make sure you are painting the filing cabinet in a well-ventilated room, as you will be using aerosol-based spray paint. You will need to wear gloves and a full respirator mask as well to protect your lungs from dangerous vapors and potentially harmful chemical fumes when spraying.

2. Prep the Filing Cabinet

desk top placed on two filing cabinets

Run a piece of 220 or 320-grit sandpaper over the filing cabinet to make sure the surface is ready to accept the new paint. New paint actually sticks to lightly sanded existing paint better than it does to a spray-on primer or to bare metal. The sandpaper also removes any oils from your hands that may have been transferred onto the cabinet which may interfere with the paint. After sanding, wipe down the cabinet with a clean, dry cloth. Then, use another cloth with a little paint thinner on it to remove the residual dust from the metal surface left behind.

You will want to remove any hardware, like handles or knobs before painting. If you can’t remove them, cover them with masking tape to protect them from the paint. Don't forget to cover the lock with masking tape, as well.

3. Use Primer Only if You Need It

You will need a primer only so the new paint sticks to the metal—therefore, you need only prime any bare metal spots. You can choose to apply primer before you paint, or choose a paint that already has primer mixed in. If you are applying a separate primer, make sure you purchase a spray primer, as it is much harder to manually paint metal without leaving brush marks. Metal paint primer can be found at most home improvement stores without too much difficulty.

4. Use the Right Paint

As with the primer, opt for a spray paint formulated for use on metal, since these will help prevent rust. Make sure you spray in light, even coats and purchase enough paint for the job. You may need two or three coats of paint to cover your metal filing cabinet but this is better than spraying too much material onto the surface in one application. Doing this will leave your paint job with drip marks.

The finish coat will require three to five applications, all very light and thin. The first application of paint is often called the “tack” coat and should be extremely light. It does not even have to fully cover the cabinet -- it provides a “sticky” light coat that subsequent coats adhere to well. The next coat can be applied more heavily, but still should only be applied very lightly. If you attempt to apply the paint too heavily, it will sag and run.

5. Use the Proper Technique

finger on the nozzle of a spray paint can

Spray technique is an on/off action. Depress the trigger on the spray can and “paint” three inches of air until the spray contacts the surface, then go past the end of the cabinet and let go of the trigger. Start moving your hand in the opposite direction before depressing the trigger again, then make your pass across the cabinet and let off of the trigger again. It is an on/off, left to right, right to left motion that does the perfect job.

If you are unsure about how to produce a smooth and even finish, start painting at the back of the metal file cabinet so even if you make mistakes, no one will see them.

Edward Kimble, a professional painter, and the author of "Interior House Painting Blog," contributed to this article.

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