How to Give a File Cabinet a Makeover

Four Methods:Using Spray PaintUsing Brush or Roller PaintUsing Self-Adhesive Contact/Shelf PaperUsing The Real Wood

File cabinets are a necessary evil in most homes—if you want to keep your household paperwork in some sort of order. Most commercially-available household file cabinets offer very few color options. Gray, beige, and brown; those are essentially all your color options when purchasing a new filing cabinet. However, with some time and DIY effort, you can give your file cabinet a budget-friendly makeover. Your creativity is your only limit, and you can use spray paint, a brush or roller, shelf paper, or the original wood to redo your cabinet.

Method 1
Using Spray Paint

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    1
    Remove the drawers from the cabinet. Then, remove the exterior hardware (handles, lock cylinders, etc.).
    • If you have difficulty removing the hardware, you may simply mask the hardware prior to painting.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 1Bullet1
    • The cabinet and drawers will have to be hand-sanded around any hardware that is left in place.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 1Bullet2
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    Remove any stickers or labels. WD-40 and a razor blade work very well for this.
    • Spray some WD-40 directly onto the sticker and let it stand for a few minutes.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 2Bullet1
    • Then, carefully use a razor blade or something else that will scrape the sticker away.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 2Bullet2
    • Wipe away the excess WD-40 with an old cloth or paper towel.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 2Bullet3
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    Sand chipped paint to smooth the surface. If there is chipped paint, sand the chipped area with 220 grit sandpaper until it feathers into the remaining paint.
    • There is no need to strip the cabinet of all paint.
    • Once you have sanded the chipped areas, use fine or very fine steel wool to rub down all exterior surfaces of the cabinet and drawers.
    • This will flatten the glossy surface and make the paint adhere better.
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    Wipe the entire cabinet down to prepare for priming. Wipe the surfaces of your cabinet clean with household window cleaner.
    • This will remove any oily surface residue.
    • Do it twice, then wipe it dry with a clean paper towel.
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    Apply your primer coat to create a surface for painting. Make sure you are painting in a very well-ventilated area, and start by painting the drawers.
    • Set the drawers face up on a garage floor, patio, etc.
    • Be sure the surface is protected with newspaper, cardboard or other cover.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 5Bullet2
    • Note: Use ONLY spray enamel. Do not use a lacquer! Lacquer will eat up anything in its path, except other lacquer. Enamel is a safe bet over nearly any paint.
    • To be sure, spray a test area that will not be exposed when finished.
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    Spray a light coat of primer to start. Mask any hardware that hasn't been removed.
    • Use white or gray as this will make the final color more vivid.
    • Recoat with primer within the time indicated on the can.
    • Most enamels must be recoated within an hour.
    • Otherwise, you will have to wait until the following day.
    • Do not try to lay down one thick coat, because the primer will run and take a long time to dry.
    • Spray all drawers then set them aside to make room for the cabinet.
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    Spray the cabinet with a very light coat of primer. Spray the sides of the cabinet lightly because you will be painting vertical surfaces and the paint is more likely to run.
    • Very light coats dry fast and can be recoated within a few minutes.
    • Allow about five minutes between very light coats so the paint has a chance to set.
    • This may require about four or five very light coats. Be patient!
    • You may apply a slightly heavier coat to the top of the cabinet, as you will be painting a flat, horizontal surface. This is similar to painting the drawer faces.
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    Let the cabinet dry before painting a color top coat. Allow the cabinet and drawers to dry the amount of time recommended on the spray can before applying your color top coat.
    • If you create a design using masking tape, let the primer dry for at least 24 hrs. before taping, or the paint will peel when you remove the tape.
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    Apply your top coat in several light coats, as with the primer. Don’t worry about the primer coat showing through after the first couple of coats.
    • You may be tempted to go back and “fill in the blanks” with a heavier coat, but do not do that. It will ruin everything you have done up to this point.
    • Too heavy of a coat may cause the paint to “crinkle” and create a big mess, so be patient.
    • Be sure to hold the spray can about 10 inches (25.4 cm) from the surface as you spray, and make smooth passes from end to end.
    • Do not paint in a random zig-zag pattern or it will be difficult to get an even finish.
    • Several coats will be required, so be sure to have plenty of paint.
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    Replace the hardware. When the paint has dried, usually after 24 hours, carefully replace the hardware.
    • You now have a freshly made-over cabinet!
    • You can replace the “U” shaped handle on the drawer with two decorative knobs, if you like.
    • Be creative! Paint additional designs on your cabinet either by hand or by using your favorite stencils.
    • You may choose to paint each drawer a different color. You can even personalize each drawer!

Method 2
Using Brush or Roller Paint

  1. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 11
    1
    Remove the drawers from the cabinet. Then, remove the exterior hardware (handles, lock cylinders, etc.).
    • If you have difficulty removing the hardware, you may simply mask the hardware prior to painting.
    • The cabinet and drawers will have to be hand-sanded around any hardware that is left in place.
  2. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 12
    2
    Remove any stickers or labels. WD-40 and a razor blade work very well for this.
    • Spray some WD-40 directly onto the sticker and let it stand for a few minutes.
    • Then, carefully use a razor blade or something else that will scrape the sticker away.
    • Wipe away the excess WD-40 with an old cloth or paper towel.
  3. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 13
    3
    Sand chipped paint to smooth the surface. If there is chipped paint, sand the chipped area with 220 grit sandpaper until it feathers into the remaining paint.
    • There is no need to strip the cabinet of all paint.
    • Once you have sanded the chipped areas, use fine or very fine steel wool to rub down all exterior surfaces of the cabinet and drawers.
    • This will flatten the glossy surface and make the paint adhere better.
  4. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 14
    4
    Wipe the entire cabinet down to prepare for priming. Wipe the surfaces of your cabinet clean with household window cleaner.
    • This will remove any oily surface residue.
    • Do it twice, then wipe it dry with a clean paper towel.
  5. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 15
    5
    Apply your primer coat to create a surface for painting. Make sure you are painting in a very well-ventilated area, and start by painting the drawers.
    • Set the drawers face up on a garage floor, patio, etc.
    • Be sure the surface is protected with newspaper, cardboard or other cover.
    • Note: Use ONLY spray enamel. Do not use a lacquer! Lacquer will eat up anything in its path, except other lacquer. Enamel is a safe bet over nearly any paint.
    • To be sure, spray a test area that will not be exposed when finished.
  6. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 16
    6
    Spray a light coat of primer to start. Mask any hardware that hasn't been removed.
    • Use white or gray as this will make the final color more vivid.
    • Recoat with primer within the time indicated on the can.
    • Most enamels must be recoated within an hour.
    • Otherwise, you will have to wait until the following day.
    • Do not try to lay down one thick coat, because the primer will run and take a long time to dry.
    • Spray all drawers then set them aside to make room for the cabinet.
  7. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 17
    7
    Spray the cabinet with a very light coat of primer. Spray the sides of the cabinet lightly because you will be painting vertical surfaces and the paint is more likely to run.
    • Very light coats dry fast and can be recoated within a few minutes.
    • Allow about five minutes between very light coats so the paint has a chance to set.
    • This may require about four or five very light coats. Be patient!
    • You may apply a slightly heavier coat to the top of the cabinet, as you will be painting a flat, horizontal surface. This is similar to painting the drawer faces.
  8. Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 18
    8
    Let the cabinet dry before painting a color top coat. Allow the cabinet and drawers to dry the amount of time recommended on the spray can before applying your color top coat.
    • If you create a design using masking tape, let the primer dry for at least 24 hrs. before taping, or the paint will peel when you remove the tape.
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    9
    Use a gloss or semi-gloss latex or acrylic based paint. Flat paints have a “dusty” finish and do not clean as well if the surface gets dirty in the future.
    • For a high-use item like a file cabinet, it is best to use a paint that can be easily cleaned in the future.
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    10
    Brush or roll on your paint. Apply two light-to-medium coats of paint rather than one heavy coat.
    • Runs or drips can easily be brushed out while paint is still wet.
    • This type of paint usually cleans well with soap and water.
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    Wait for the paint to dry. Wait until paint is dry to add different colors or to paint designs over the final coat.
    • Using a roller adds an interesting texture to the paint.
    • Replace the hardware or change it to something completely different depending on the look you are trying to achieve.

Method 3
Using Self-Adhesive Contact/Shelf Paper

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    1
    Choose your paper. Using paper is a simple, but fun way to makeover your file cabinets.
    • Shelf paper or contact paper is usually made of vinyl and not paper.
    • Be sure to choose vinyl if you come across both types as it is more durable and is easier to clean.
    • The surfaces to which you will apply the contact paper should be dent-free, or the finished project will not look good. The exterior hardware MUST be removed in order for the paper to apply smoothly.
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    2
    Measure the width and height of the drawer face. With the drawer sitting face up, measure the width and height of the drawer face.
    • Most contact paper has a “criss-cross” grid on the back side.
    • This helps you cut straight lines. They are usually ½” or 1” squares.
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    3
    Cut the contact paper to size. Cut a piece of contact paper about one inch larger than each measurement.
    • Peel back about one inch of the backing paper to expose the adhesive on the paper.
    • Do this along the “long” edge of the paper.
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    Align and place the paper on the drawer. Carefully align the exposed edge along the corresponding edge of the drawer face with about a half-inch overhang.
    • Carefully run your finger over the paper to stick it down to the drawer. Make sure the paper does not wrinkle while you do this.
    • Slowly peel back about ½” of backing paper at a time as you carefully stick the paper to the drawer surface.
    • Do this in very small segments to reduce the risk of bubbles and wrinkles.
    • Continue this process until the entire surface is covered.
    • It is recommended that you “prime” a vinyl surface with a solid white contact paper. Otherwise, the wood-grain pattern will show through if you are using a light-colored pattern.
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    5
    Trim off the excess and correct any misapplications. Use a razor blade or sharp utility knife to trim off the excess. You can use the outer edges of the drawer as a natural straight-edge to get a clean, straight cut.
    • If you get a wrinkle, be very careful if you peel the paper off the drawer. Vinyl stretches and it may not re-apply correctly.
    • If this happens, you can cut away the bad piece and replace it with a new one. Use a straight-edge to make your cut so it will be straight.
    • If you get air bubbles or pockets under the paper, use the sharp corner of a razor blade or the sharp tip of a utility knife to pierce the bubble and release the air. It should then flatten out nicely.
    • Repeat this method for all surfaces. Do one surface at a time on the cabinet and do not try to completely wrap the cabinet with one piece.
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    Add some extra decoration for a personal touch. Cut out decorative shapes with a contrasting color of contact paper and apply it to the newly covered surfaces.
    • You may also get pre-cut letters and shapes to personalize your cabinet.

Method 4
Using The Real Wood

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    1
    Do not sand and re-stain wood cabinets. If you are giving a wood cabinet a makeover, it is not recommended to sand and re-stain wood cabinets.
    • This is because if the wood is thoroughly sealed, it will not absorb new stain very well. This will result in a blotchy finish.
    • If you are simply applying a new clear coat, remove all exterior hardware and clean the cabinet and drawers by buffing with very fine steel wool.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 28Bullet2
    • Wipe away all the dust and follow the same procedure as painting metal cabinets.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 28Bullet3
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    Use a “primer” sheet of solid white contact paper so the grain will not show through your final pattern.
    • Wood can be made over the same way as metal when painting or using contact paper.
      Image titled Give a File Cabinet a Makeover Step 29Bullet1
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    3
    Choose a base color to contrast with the top coat. White, black or gray are common choices.
    • Paint one thin coat of the base color that just covers the surface and let it dry until tacky to the touch.
    • This requires two contrasting paint colors and must be brushed. Acrylic paint works best.
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    Apply a thin coat of the top coat color over the tacky base coat. Let the base coat show through in streaks by completely brushing out the top coat of paint.
    • Use your own judgment on how much base you want to show through.
    • Sometimes, since the base coat is tacky when applying the top coat, the different phases of drying will create a wrinkled or distressed appearance of an antique piece of furniture.
    • Allow the paint to dry thoroughly before replacing the hardware and using the cabinet.

Warnings

  • Be sure the surface of a wood cabinet is actually real wood and not a wood-grain vinyl laminate. You cannot sand this type of surface and paint peels very easily, so painting is not recommended. If you have a vinyl laminate, only the contact paper method is feasible.


Things You May Need

  • Phillips and flat head screwdrivers (to remove cabinet hardware)
  • Painter’s tape
  • Paper towels or old cloth
  • Spray enamel (If repainting) in your choice of color(s) and primer (white or gray)
  • #0000 (very fine) steel wool
  • 220 grit sandpaper
  • Mineral spirits
  • Vinyl peel-and-stick shelf paper (if covering cabinet) in choice of pattern/color
  • Power sander (optional)
  • Miscellaneous items to be addressed throughout tutorial

Article Info

Categories: Furniture and Cabinets