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The ultimate file cabinet buying guide

From the very highest levels to the most junior roles, every facet of every business must be organized in order to run efficiently. Poor organization isn’t just a nuisance that can hurt your chances of retaining top talent — it can also cost companies a great deal, both in terms of time and money.

One of the keys to keeping an office organized is an efficient filing system — and if you think that’s an easy assignment, it’s a safe bet that you’ve never been tasked with creating an efficient filing system, setting it up, and then getting your fellow employees to use it. A highly efficient filing system is no guarantee. In fact, in one study, 49 percent of office workers said they spent too much time locating documents. Imagine how much work isn’t getting done when those employees spend too much time hunting down a report or contract!

The first step to setting up a filing system is to find the right file cabinet to suit your current and future needs. Because while many industries are moving more and more toward paperless systems, in some cases, some departments and companies will always need to file some physical copies.

So how do you know which filing cabinet is best for you? From size, orientation, security, and even looks, there’s a lot to consider. With this handy guide, you’ll be able to narrow your choices down in no time. Just so long as you don’t need to hunt down an errant document before you get started, that is.

The ultimate file cabinet buying guide

What to consider before you buy

There’s plenty of variety when it comes to filing cabinets, so before you start shopping, take some time to consider what you need as well as where you’ll put it.

  • Size
    This is probably the single most important factor in your decision, and it’s a three-pronged consideration. First, consider what size documents you need to fit in the drawers. Most are sold in letter (8 ½”x11”) or legal (8 ½”x14”) size, so give a thought to the size of documents you usually file and whether or not they can be folded.Then, think about storage space. How many documents do you need to keep filed now, and is that likely to remain the same or increase? Would a specific number of drawers make a difference in your organizational approach? If so, keep in mind that vertical filing cabinets often have more drawers, although each drawer is smaller.Finally, there’s the size of the structure itself. This relates to the first two size considerations, of course, but it also requires you to take the size and shape of the office where it’ll be housed into account. A filing cabinet you want to tuck under a desk must, of course, fit in that nook. And if you plan to place a large, lateral filing cabinet along a wall, make sure it won’t hinder a door from opening or a desk chair from being able to scoot back.
  • Type
    On a surface level, the most common types of filing cabinets are lateral, vertical, mobile, open shelf, and flat. We’ll go into more detail on the pros and cons of each below.
  • Fire safety
    How sensitive or valuable is your paperwork? If it’s important and irreplaceable, spend the extra money on a fireproof cabinet, which will also likely be resistant to water and theft.
  • Security
    Confidential documents — or any paperwork that should be kept away from prying eyes — may be safest in a filing cabinet you can lock. This feature isn’t always included, so if it’s important to you, double check before you make your purchase.
  • Aesthetics
    The looks of your file cabinet might not matter too much if you simply need a functional piece in a back room. But if your file cabinet takes up significant space in your office or a space where customers and clients frequent, appearance may matter.

The ultimate file cabinet buying guide

Understanding types of filing cabinets

You have several different types of file cabinets to choose from — more than just vertical and lateral. As you begin to compare cabinets, keep in mind that there’s no single type that’s better than the others. It’s all about what you need.

  • Lateral
    You see lateral filing cabinets most often in large office settings because they have multiple drawers, can hold more paperwork, and often have anti-tipping safety features to ensure you can pull the drawers all the way out without pulling the cabinet away from the wall. Lateral cabinets allow you to file from side-to-side and can often hold both letter- and legal-size hanging folders.
  • Vertical
    Vertical filing cabinets take up less wall space, which may be an important factor in a tighter office, and although they can also have a large number of drawers, they generally don’t hold as much as a lateral filing cabinet. Drawers are typically narrower and hold just letter-sized folders, and you sort files from front to back. You’re more likely to find vertical file cabinets in home offices or smaller workplace settings.
  • Mobile
    Mobile filing cabinets are just what they sound like: They move easily from one space to another, making them great for people who don’t stay in one spot but always need access to files. They’re generally fairly small — after all, it wouldn’t exactly add to the convenience factor to roll a 500-pound monstrosity around — and often fit beneath desks to stay out of the way.
  • Open shelf
    Looking much like a bookshelf, an open-shelf filing cabinet has — you guessed it — an open front. Instead of tucking files into drawers, you fill these shelves with folders and binders. If you expect your files to grow significantly and don’t need confidential information out of sight when filed, open-shelf cabinets can be a nice option since you can store books and other items if you have excess space.
  • Flat
    Less common in most settings is the flat filing cabinet, which holds items (such as blueprints) that don’t fit neatly in regular files in a series of flat, shallow drawers that stack atop one another. This type of cabinet won’t hold as much in terms of quantity, but if you’re looking for an option to hold oddly shaped or sized items and files, it may be your best bet.

Making a material choice

As with the types of filing cabinets, there are pros and cons when it comes to the various materials the cabinets are made of.

  • Laminate or wood veneer
    If you want a traditional look, but don’t want to shell out a ton of money for a solid wood piece of furniture, a laminate or wood veneer cabinet can give you the aesthetic you’d like. Laminate can also look quite sleek and modern in a solid color.
  • Wood
    You can never go wrong with a beautiful piece of wood furniture, but real wood can be costly. And, if functionality is your foremost concern, keep in mind that wood generally isn’t as durable (or as fire resistant) as metal.
  • Metal
    Typically steel or aluminum, metal file cabinets are solid, durable, and designed for hard work. Metal filing cabinets are more likely to be secure against fire and water damage, and it’s not difficult to find options that protect against theft, too. They don’t always look as pretty as some of the other options, but that’s not an issue in many settings.
  • Plastic
    Lightweight and generally affordable, a plastic model may be all you need. Keep in mind, though, that plastic is unlikely to offer the kind of secure locking mechanisms you’d find in metal or wood. It’s also less likely to hold up over time, and won’t offer as much in the way of security against disaster, either.

The ultimate file cabinet buying guide

Other considerations

If you’ve waded through all of the above, congratulations! You probably have a fairly clear idea of what you need in a filing cabinet, and you’re just about ready to start shopping in earnest. But first, there are just a few more things you’ll want to know about.

  • Counterweights
    Even a small drawer full of paper can weigh more than 75 pounds. And if you’re working with a long lateral filing cabinet with several drawers, just imagine how heavy that top drawer is — and how that weight could affect the balance of the entire cabinet if you pull it all the way out. Yikes! That’s why counterweights are an important feature, particularly in larger filing cabinets or in a home office where small children might pull on drawers. These mechanisms prevent tipping, keeping you, your documents, and other people safe.
  • Drawer slides
    Drawer slides are the mechanisms that allow your cabinet drawers to slide open and closed without catching or jamming. The important thing to know is that drawer slides all have a specific weight rating, and if you exceed that weight, you risk damaging the slides. Unless you plan to store unusual (and unusually heavy) materials in your filing cabinet, damaged slides shouldn’t be a big concern.
  • Hanging bar vs. follower block
    If you have a file cabinet that allows for hanging folders, it has hanging bars. As long as you don’t overstuff your drawer, you should be able to slide your hanging folders forward and backward (or from side to side) in a way that allows you to easily access a file in the drawer. A follower block is a metal divider that typically uses a spring-loaded mechanism to hold your files in place, but is used more often for non-hanging folders.

With all of these tips and starting points in mind, you’re well on your way to creating the most efficient filing system your office has ever seen! Be sure to stock up on filing folders, labels… and maybe some candy so you can bribe your officemates into lending you a hand with the setup.

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