The Complete Guide to Filing Cabinets

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


Lateral file cabinets feature wide but shallow drawers ideal for high-capacity filing. Due to their shallow drawer extension, lateral file cabinets are great for walkways and areas requiring a lot of filing in a tight space. Most lateral file cabinets are 32" – 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 file cabinets 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 file cabinets have narrow but deep drawers, usually measuring 15" – 20" wide. While lateral file cabinets are ideal for high-capacity, long-term use, vertical file cabinets typically hold fewer documents and are great for everyday use in a personal workspace. Vertical file cabinets take up minimal wall space, but the deep drawers require more clearance to open than shallow lateral file cabinets do.

Mobile file cabinets 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 so they can fit underneath work surfaces, though larger mobile file cabinets are available. 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 file cabinets display file folders in a vertical position rather than a horizontal position. Commonly used in medical record-keeping, side tab file cabinets make information easily accessible by allowing users to locate the name on a folder tab at a glance. Side tab file cabinets come without doors, with swinging doors, and with tambour doors.

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

Card file cabinets are designed to house cards of a specific size, including 3”x5” and 4”x6” index cards, usually in a front-to-back configuration.

Flat file cabinets 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 over folding or rolling 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 between employee workstations. They make great storage solutions and excellent touch points for collaboration and casual meetings as well.


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

Fireproof filing cabinets are made with specially formulated insulation 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 be made to look like real wood but is actually made from some 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

Nearly all types of filing cabinets can accommodate letter-size documents. A letter-size document is the size of a standard 8-1/2” x 11” piece of computer paper.

Legal-size documents can be accommodated by many but not all filing cabinets, 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” x 14”.

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 cabinet 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 cabinet 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 that is hung from the rail in your filing cabinet. 

Tip: Most lateral and vertical filing cabinets do not have bottom panels sturdy enough to accommodate paperwork being stacked in the drawer as it would be in a storage cabinet. If you have a lateral or vertical filing cabinet, use only hanging file folders hung 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 file cabinets and tall vertical file cabinets for 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 1 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 and are built into the bottom of a cabinet to further reduce tipping and 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. Take note of 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 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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