Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fabric-Covered Filing Cabinet

I have had a lot of requests for a more detailed how-to on my fabric-covered metal filing cabinet. (See my post from November 8, 2009 for the original discussion.) Why in the world I did not take more photos of this process, I'll never know, but I have posted a pretty thorough set of directions here.

Finding the right cab
Obviously you need to start with metal filing cabinet. (Some wood cabs might work, too.) There are plenty of places to find an old metal filing cabinet like the one in the picture - thrift shops, used furniture stores, garage sales... I even seen them on the side of the road. Seriously, don't be embarrased to pull over and look at somebody else's garbage. It might have potential and it would be free!

There are few things to be aware of when you are looking for the perfect used filing cabinet. The condition is important. It should be free of dents and rust and the drawers should open smoothly. It is also important for the base of the cabinet to have the right construction. Turn the cabinet over to inspect the bottom. It should have a metal construction that allows for the feet to be attached used fender washers and nuts as illustrated by this photo. If the base is a different construction and you're not ready to skip the feet, you might want to keep looking.

Once I found the perfect cabinet, I removed the drawers and took off the handles and the label plates. On my filing cabinet, there were screws on the inside of the front of the drawer. The screws held on a back panel in addition to the handle. Don't worry, it's fine to take the back panel off. It should reattach easily.There is no practical way to remove the button that allows the drawer to open, so it's best to work around it - more on that in a minute.
Fabric and Feet
I used basic cotton quilting material because it's easy to work with and it comes in so many different colors and patterns. Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a fabric is that the decopouge will darken the fabric slightly (dark, dark brown will turn almost black).

Next, cut out a piece of fabric for the face of the drawer that is at least an inch wider on each side.  Lay the fabric over the face of the drawer and mark where the button will come through. Then, cut two little slits in the shape of a cross in the fabric.

Set the fabric aside and use some sandpaper to rough up the surface of the drawer faces and wipe the surface clean with a damp cloth. Then, apply a decent layer of decoupage to the cabinet face. (You can get decoupage at any craft store.) Finally, work the slits in the fabric around the push button and start smoothing out the fabric with side of your hand until there are no air bubbles.

Next, cut slits at each corner of the drawer face. Then, trim the fabric down a little before wrapping and adhering the fabric around the edges using the decoupage method. If you are using a thicker fabric, you may not want to wrap it around the edges because this likely will prevent the drawers from closing properly. In this case, wait till the fabric is dry, place the drawer front face down on a clean, flat surface and use a rotary cutter with a sharp blade to trim the fabric clean to the edge.

Don't worry if some of the decoupage leaks through the fabric. When the fabric dries, you will apply another coat of decoupage on top of the fabric using a paint brush. (If you have very thick fabric and none of the decoupage leaked through, you have the option to skip this final layer of decoupage.) When this outer layer of decoupage dries, the surface will feel harder and more durable.

Repeat for other drawer(s).

The last step is putting the handles and label plates back on. I used an exacto knife to cut slits where the label plates attach and where the screws for the handles go through. Using a new, sharp blade is crucial for this step. Otherwise, you'll have a mess and ruin what you spent so much time doing. Finally, put the drawers back in and you're done!

I searched around for the feet and finally found the perfect thing at a big box store, but I have seen them in woodworker's catalogues, too. As I discussed earlier, the bottom of my cabinet already had holes that allowed me to attach the feet using fender washers and nuts.

When painting the metal cabinet, make sure to rough it up with sandpaper and wipe it down with a damp cloth first. Then, you absolutely must apply a primer before applying the paint. I would go to the paint store (not Home Depot, go to a paint store) and ask them what primer and paint you should use. I used regular primer and latex paint for my metal filing cabinet and it's holding up just fine. But, if you think it will take alot of abuse, you may need to go with a sturdier paint like acrylic or enamel. Another thing to consider is application - with paint brushes you will see the brush strokes and some people are fine with that. But, for a more professional quality finish, you may want to spray paint.

I would very much like to feature a few examples of filing cabinet done by others. So, feel free to send me pics of your work and I'll post them here!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this up with the directions... my husband has a 15-yr-old ugly gray metal file cabinet and we were "debating" on keeping it...
    This may save a perfectly good file cabinet, if I can make it pretty, lol!!

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  2. I blogged about it here:

    Thank you again!!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. We are moving and I have some old metal drawers that they put patterns in, in a fabric store. I am wanting to repaint them for my new sewing room. I am excited about taking some of my fabric and covering just the drawers, and painting the remainder of the cabinets. I will post pictures when I am done, but it will be a few months. Renee

  5. That is so cute, I would of never thought of that. I am definitely making me one or maybe a few! Lol Steel Buildings

  6. Now those rock! Great way to add a lot of style with minimum effort and not a lot of cash. Dressmaking fabric look fantastic.