Spray Painting Metal File Cabinets


Last updated: July 18, 2023

Spray Paint Old Metal File Cabinets the Right Way in this Guide

Spray painting metal file cabinets

Nothing says office makeover better than newly repainted metal file cabinets. It doesn’t settle right if you replace the carpet and office furniture but retain the metal cabinets as they were. 

If the metal cabinets are still workable, you don’t need to dispose of them. Get some spray paint and give the cabinets the overdue transformation.  

In this post, we guide you on how to go about spray painting metal file cabinets like a pro. Also, we throw in some tips and techniques and other useful information to help take your paint job from amateur to professional. Read on!

Can You Spray Paint Metal File Cabinets?

Yes, it is doable. Spray painting is the best way to transform and restore metal file cabinets if you choose the best spray paint for the metal surface. To achieve a superb paint job, clean the surface thoroughly with soap and water or use a cleaning solution like trisodium phosphate (TSP). Scuff the surface, wipe the dust, apply primer, and then spray paint the metal file cabinet.

What You Need To Know Before Spray Painting Metal File Cabinets 

Here are some things you ought to know before you start your project:

  • Due to the non-porous nature of metal paint it has difficulty adhering to the surfaces.
  • You must sand the surface before spray painting the metal file cabinet for the paint to bond properly.
  • Remove any accessories on the file cabinet to avoid getting paint on them.
  • A coat of primer is important as it promotes bonding between the metallic surface and the paint.
  • When buying your spray paint, ensure the spray paint type you choose works on metallic surfaces. And if you don’t know how to choose the one that will last longer, then you may find this my other post on the most durable spray paints for metal useful.
  • Confirm that the primer you select prevents rusting.
  • Determine whether the metal cabinet you spray paint is ferrous or galvanized.

How To Spray Paint Metal Filing Cabinets

Below is a detailed explanation of how to spray paint a metal filing cabinet successfully:

What you’ll need 

  • Drop/damp cloth.
  • Tack rag
  • Sandpaper.
  • Protective gear.
  • Orbital sander or sanding block.
  • Wire brush.
  • Paint scraper.
  • Masking tape.

STEP 1: Prepare your workspace

It’s better to spray paint outside where you’ll have no problems with paint splatters. However, if that isn’t a possible option, spread a drop cloth to protect your workspace from the paint overspray. 

Also, wear protective gear when working with paint to keep it off your skin and eyes and to avoid inhaling the toxic emissions.

STEP 2: Clean and prep the metal file cabinet 

Remove any accessories on the metal file cabinet you don’t want painted. If you want to spray paint the drawers a different color to the skeleton, remove them as well.

If there’s anything that you are unable to remove, cover it up with masking tape. Clean the surface you intend to paint with a lint-free rag and warm soapy water.

Remove old spray paints on the metal cabinet to expose the surface first. If the metal file cabinet has rust, scrub it off with a wire brush, then clean the surface. Allow the cabinet to dry completely before proceeding.

STEP 3: Sand the surface of the metal filing cabinet

Scuff the surface with sandpaper. You can work with a sanding block which can be exhausting and time-consuming. An orbital sander will help cover the cabinet faster and more effectively. You can rent one from the hardware store if you don’t own an orbital sander.  

Sanding is essential for a successful outcome, so don’t skip it. Sanding helps the new paint coat stick better to the previous one. If sanding galvanized metal, be careful not to scuff the zinc coat that protects the metal from rusting.  

STEP 4: Remove the sand dust

Wipe the dust off with a tack rag, or use a vacuum. The surface must be free of particles, dust, and grime before you apply the top coat.

STEP 5: Apply metal primer and let it dry

Before applying metal primer on a ferrous metal surface, ensure it is rust-free. If scuff pads aren’t as effective, try using rust removers. Galvanized metals are less stressful and easier to clean. However, they tend to form a whitish oxidative coat which you can remove with sandpaper.

Prime the surface immediately after it dries and has no sand dust. Metal surfaces can form flash rust after prepping if you wait too long before applying the primer. A single coat of primer is usually enough. But, if the surface could use a second coat, go ahead.

Primers have different drying times. It is best to read the manufacturers’ instructions to give it sufficient time to dry and cure. Also, if you plan on applying oil-based paint, use a similar version of the primer, and the same applies to water-based paints for good compatibility.

If you are unsure of the type of primer to use for this step, you’ll find my post on the best spray paint primer for metal helpful.

STEP 6: Spray paint the metal filing cabinet and let it dry

There are two options when it comes to spray paint. One uses an air spray gun or HVLP (high velocity, low pressure) sprayer, and the other is spray cans.

The HVLP sprayer or spray gun is very effective and commonly used by professionals. The equipment is costly, and you don’t need to buy it for a single project.

When working with a compressor, you’ll need to give the paint a lighter and thinner consistency. Mix the paint with paint thinner and spray paint the surface. 

With spray cans, first, give it a good shake before spraying. Stand 6-12 inches away from the item you intend to paint. Press the nozzle 3 inches into the air before letting the paint hit the smooth surface and also when you get to the end on the surface to achieve evenness.

Maintain consistent pressure, hand movement, and distance so the painted coat is perfect and smooth. Let the paint dry for at least 2 hours before adding the second coat.  

STEP 7: Apply subsequent spray paint coats 

You’ll need to apply at least 3-6 paint coatings. With each coat, follow similar instructions as you did in step 6. The other coats can be thicker than the first, but watch out for paint drips. If you overdo the coating thickness, the paint can sag. Remember to give each coat ample drying time before adding another.  

STEP 8: Let it dry 

Let the painted metal file cabinet dry for 24-48 hours before it is ready. Reassemble the parts you removed, and then add any accessories or decals you want. At this point, the metal file cabinet is ready for use. 

Useful Tips and Techniques When Spray Painting Metal File Cabinets

Below are some tips and techniques you can incorporate to achieve a good paint job:

  • Before spray painting, you must shake the can for about 40-60 seconds. That mixes the paint in the can into an even consistency. Also, frequently shake the spray can while painting.

  • If you are a beginner, start practicing on hidden parts like the back of the cabinet. When you can trust your spray painting skills work on the other parts.

  • Don’t spray until the primer coat is invisible when painting, which leads to uneven coats in some areas. Spray paint the surface uniformly, and don’t work with the primer. It will get covered as you add subsequent coats.

  • If your office or house has good access to sunlight, pick dull colors for the metal file cabinet, and for rooms with less access to sunlight, go with bright paint colors.  

  • If you apply the primer with a paint brush, you must sand the surface again before spray painting. The sanding helps to get rid of any brush marks on the surface.

  • Allow each paint coat to dry before adding subsequent thin layers. Keep the painted cabinet away from dust and dirt to dry properly.

  • Store the cans of spray paint upside down and depress the nozzle. This technique ensures the nozzle works perfectly on the next coat.  

  • For even coats, spray 3 inches of air before the paint touches the surface and an additional 3 inches after reaching the end of the cabinet.

  • After you reach the end, you can let go of the nozzle for a couple of seconds to prevent finger fatigue.

  • Clean the spot and repaint if you notice any pooling or excessive drips. Avoid holding the can over certain spots longer than necessary.

Alternative Ways To Make Metal Filing Cabinets Look Better  

Metal file cabinets are known for their boring colors. The best way to spice them up is by spray painting the cabinets with vibrant colors. Here are some options you can utilize:

  • Add decorative accessories like knobs or handles. The pieces can make the cabinets look stylish and match the painted color.
  • Clean and wax or polish the metallic surface. Polishing makes the existing paint look bright and fresh.
  • Other than spray painting, you can cover the cabinet with contact paper. Contact paper gives you more decorative options and is affordable and easy to attach.
  • Adding statement stickers and decals on the cabinet gives it a delightful look.
  • Besides the standard rectangular frame on metal file cabinets, you can add more details to it.
  • Get stencils and add some cool and creative designs on the surface.

How Do You Spray Paint Rusted Metal File Cabinets

If you are restoring an old metal file cabinet, it is common to find rust. Don’t tense; you can still salvage the cabinet. Here is the procedure to follow:

  • Scrub the loose rust with a wire brush or scrub pads and wipe off the rust from the surface. Repeat this process till most of the rust comes off.
  • Then, use a scrubbing pad or brush to clean the surface off any dirt, dust, or grime.
  • Let the surface dry completely, then sand the metal file cabinet. Sanding helps remove any rust and loose paint.
  • Wipe off the sand dust with a tack cloth or vacuum.
  • Apply a rust converter to neutralize the rust. Read and follow the instructions on the rust converter can.
  • After the rust converter has dried, you can apply the primer, followed by your coats of spray paints.

If you paint over a rusted surface, the rust continues to spread underneath the paint and eventually causing the paint to chip and peel off. Also, when applying the rust converter, wear proper gear and work in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling the toxic emissions.

FAQs: Spray Painting Metal File Cabinets

We have answered the commonly asked questions down below to make your research easier:

Can you paint metal filing cabinets with furniture paint? 

Yes, chalk, acrylic, and oil-based paints can work on metal surfaces. However, you’ll need to use paint thinner on the furniture (wood) paint before application. Wood surfaces are porous and soak up thick paint, unlike metal surfaces. Furniture paint is durable and will protect the metal surface against the elements.

Do I need a metal primer before spray painting metal file cabinets?

You don’t need to, but we recommend that you do! Here is why. The metal primer prevents rust from seeping through to the new paint coat. A zinc chromate primer is specially designed to coat rust. Also, priming helps the new paint adhere properly to the existing paint.

What kind of paint can you use on a metal file cabinet?

You can use oil-based or water-based paint on metal surfaces. Oil-based spray paint is more durable and expensive than water-based paint. Also, it takes longer to dry, and chips or cracks with time. Water-based spray paint, on the other hand, is quick-drying, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly.  

Can you spray paint a steel metal file cabinet? 

When working on bare steel, apply the spray paint following the steps discussed above in the article. The difference comes in if you are working on stainless steel. You must apply more pressure and energy to the surface, especially if it’s new until you obtain some roughness. Paint doesn’t bond to stainless steel, but scuffing and sanding allow the spray paint to adhere to the metal surface.

How many cans of spray paint do I need to paint a file cabinet?

You’ll need about 4 cans of spray paint. All in all, the number of cans to use depends on how many coats you intend to apply, the size of the cabinet, and the area you want to spray paint.

Bottom Line: Spray Painting Metal File Cabinets 

The most crucial information you need before starting the project is the type of metal you are working on. Unlike galvanized metals like zinc, ferrous metals like steel or cast iron are more prone to rusting. Then shop for spray paints, primer, and any necessary tools needed.

Shake the can to mix the paint and stand 6-12 inches from the surface when spray painting. Apply the paint in long sweeping motions without over-spraying any spots. Practice makes perfect. Try spray painting the back of the cabinet till your technique is good enough.

You can experience joie de vivre engaging and finishing simple projects like spray painting a metal file cabinet. Spray painting elevates the file cabinets from boring and cliché to stylish and desirable. Start your project today and breathe life into that old metal file cabinet in your house or office.

Happy spray painting!

Leave a Comment