Is your office paperwork getting a little overwhelming? Use our guide to filing cabinets before you decide what to buy to ensure you get the best possible solution for your space.

Types of Filing Cabinets

Lateral files feature wide but shallow drawers that are ideal for high-capacity filing. Due to their shallow drawer extension, lateral files are great for walkways and areas requiring a lot of filing in a tight space. Most lateral files are 32" to 36" wide, making them wide enough to hold both legal- and letter-size documents, which can be arranged in a side-by-side or front-to-back configuration. Lateral files can have as few as 2 and as many as 7 drawers, with most 2-drawer units being low profile enough to fit underneath a work surface.


Vertical files have narrow but deep drawers, usually measuring 15" to 20" wide. While lateral files are ideal for high-capacity, long-term use, vertical files typically hold fewer documents and are great for everyday use in a personal workspace. Vertical files take up minimal wall space, but the deep drawers require more clearance to open than shallow lateral files.


Mobile files are filing cabinets on wheels. This type of filing cabinet is almost always a vertical file, and most options have only 1 or 2 drawers, which allow it to fit underneath work surfaces, though larger mobile files exist. Many mobile filing cabinets include a 5th wheel on the bottom drawer for added stability, and casters are often lockable to keep the cabinet in place when stationary.


Side tab files display file folders in a vertical position rather than in a horizontal position. Commonly used in medical record-keeping, side tab files make information easily accessible by allowing users to locate the name on a folder tab at a glance. Side tab files come with swinging doors, tambour doors, or no doors.


Tambour door files are side tab files with doors that fold back into the storage unit. This efficient door style is ideal when filing in tight spaces that may not have clearance for large swinging doors.


Rotary files provide maximum storage space while taking up very little floor space. This type of cabinet is double-faced, meaning the unit rotates to reveal a column of files on either side. Rotary file cabinets are made with as few as 2 and as many as 8 shelves that are typically housed in a side tab file configuration.


Card files (or card catalogs) house cards of a specific size, including 3”x5” and 4”x6” index cards, usually in a front-to-back configuration.


Flat files have short, wide drawers specifically designed to house large blueprints and artwork. Storing art and blueprints in this manner keeps them flat, which is often preferred to rolling up large schematics and documents.


Storage islands are a combination of any type of filing cabinet and/or storage cabinet with a counter height work surface. Storage islands are ideal for use between employee workstations. They make not only great storage solutions but also excellent touch points for collaboration and casual meetings.

Filing Cabinet Construction

Metal file cabinets are typically made of galvanized steel and are the most durable option. This type of file is commonly used for high-capacity filing in departments where records are kept for extended periods. Although not considered the most traditionally attractive option, metal filing cabinets come in many colors to match your office.


Fireproof filing cabinets are made with specially formulated insulation that is tested to withstand fire damage for long periods. Not only will these cabinets protect documents from fire damage, but they are also designed to prevent water damage caused by office sprinkler systems.


Laminate furniture can look like real wood but is actually made from a form of particle board with or without a wood grain print. Laminate filing cabinets are an affordable alternative to real wood and veneer options, giving the look of real wood without the high cost.


Wood veneer is made of a thin layer of real wood bonded over a thicker layer of pressboard. This provides a more high-end look than laminate but at a lower cost than solid wood furniture.


Solid wood is very high quality but comes with a high price tag and can be tricky to clean and maintain. Filing cabinets come in solid wood varieties but are uncommon in an office setting.


Storage Capabilities

Letter-size documents can be accommodated by nearly all types of filing cabinets. A letter-size document is the size of a standard 8-1/2”x11” piece of computer paper.

Legal size documents can be accommodated by many filing cabinets, but there are exceptions, so be sure to read the product description if you need a unit that can accommodate this type of paperwork. Legal-size documents measure 8-1/2”x14”.


Side-by-side filing is also called left-to-right filing and refers to filing folders that are organized in a row from left to right. This is the most common way to file letter-size hanging folders in a lateral file and legal-size folders in a vertical file.


Front-to-back filing is the opposite of side-by-side and refers to filing folders that are organized in a column from front to back. This is the most common way to file letter-size hanging folders in a vertical file and legal-size hanging folders in a lateral file.

Side tab folders are folders used with side tab and rotary filing cabinets. These basic folders include side tabs that can be outfitted with labels for easy access to documents at a glance.

Hanging folders are specifically designed for use with most lateral and vertical files. This type of folder has metal or plastic hooks on each end and hangs from a rail in your filing cabinet.

Tip: Most lateral and vertical filing cabinets do not have sturdy enough bottom panels to accommodate paperwork stacked in the drawer as they would be in a storage cabinet. If you have a lateral or vertical filing cabinet, be sure only to use hanging file folders hanging from the drawer rails.


Safety Features

Fireproof cabinets are designed for the safety of your documents and valuables. Sensitive and highly important paperwork should always be kept in a fireproof filing cabinet, and valuable materials should be kept in a fireproof safe.

Anti-tip mechanisms are built into many lateral files and tall vertical files for the user’s safety. If multiple drawers full of paperwork on a tall filing cabinet are open at the same time, the unit is likely to fall over, which can lead to serious injuries. An anti-tip mechanism allows only one drawer to be opened at a time, drastically reducing the chance of an accident.


Counterbalance weights are often added to taller filing cabinets as an additional safety precaution. These weights are typically made of concrete, lead, or another heavy material. They are built into the bottom of a cabinet to reduce tipping and to add stability.

Locking mechanisms are available on some filing cabinets but not all, so be sure to read the product description if a locking mechanism is something you need. Be sure to also note what type of locking system the filing cabinet is equipped with. A central locking system will lock every drawer in the cabinet with a single lock. Some filing cabinets, however, only come with the capability to lock one drawer. 


Hutches with doors are ideal for concealing items such as personal belongings and large files that won’t fit in your filing cabinet drawers.

Open hutches resemble a bookshelf and work as a display area for books and décor.


Note: Only purchase a hutch for your filing cabinet if there is a hutch designed to be used with that specific filing cabinet. Not all hutches can be used with all filing cabinets.



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