How to Paint Metal File Cabinets and Lockers

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Re-purposing or sprucing up metal cabinets is a trendy way to add unique pieces to your home. Want to try out this cool trend? Keep reading to find out how to paint metal cabinets, file cabinets, and even lockers.

The ​Best Paint for Metal Cabinets

You have your project, but now you need paint. What is the best paint for metal cabinets? Read on to learn more about which type you need, but if you’re in a hurry, here is our absolute favorite:

Nuvo Driftwood 1 Day Cabinet Makeover Kit
  • Low VOC, low odor, water-based acrylic paint and primer in one
  • One-day application process that dries in a soft, satin finish
  • Professional results with simple tools included in each kit
  • Covers 100 square feet of cabinet surface (40 linear feet) - the typical size of most kitchen...

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is the popular choice for painters. This is because it is water based. It is easy to clean up with water. However, once it dries it becomes water resistant to protect your painted surfaces.

In order for the acrylic paint to stick, you will need to sand the surface first (more on this below). You will also need to use a primer.

Here’s a fantastic acrylic option that we’ve used on metal with great results:

Sargent Art 8 Ounce Liquid Metal Acrylic Paint,...
  • Easy-to-use & Quality you can depend on: A Metallic Acrylic Paint set you can use as soon as you...
  • Metallic Acrylic Paint That Shines: This pallete will offer you vivid shimmery colors to bring your...
  • Rich, Vivid Pigments, AP Certified Safe & Non-Toxic: Our shimmering acrylic have a smooth texture,...
  • Easy to Use & Store: Convenient, clear, wide mouth jars allow easy access. Pour just the right...

Chalk Paint

Versatile and striking, chalk paint is the ultimate paint for avid DIY-ers. No prep needed on your surfaces for this paint to stick. For chalk paint you will need to add wax or some type of ​finish​ after the coats have dried to seal the surface.

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

If you are chalk painting an indoor item that won’t come into contact with any water or other elements, you can forgo the wax to have a matte finish.

Chalky Chicks | Chalk Finish Paint | Perfect For...
  • High quality chalk finish paint that typically covers in 1 to 2 coats. Minimal prep, no sanding,...
  • Adheres to stained wood, raw wood, laminate, glass, resin, metal, brick, cement and when paint is...
  • Ultra low VOC, kid and indoor friendly. Seal with a clear furniture wax or a polycrylic to protect...
  • 1 QT will cover up to 150 SQ feet, depending upon technique used to apply paint.
acrylic oil based paint tubes for painting metal cabinets

Spray Paint

Spray paint is the ultimate in painting with ease. For spray painting metals, you will want to clean the surface well and then use a sander to smooth the entire area you want to spray paint.

​Similar to using epoxy for painting porcelain surfaces, you will want to use a spray paint metal primer for metal surfaces. Make sure that it says metal primer so your paint does not chip.

The biggest difference between the three is that chalk paint will not require a primer. Unless you’re using a ​good sprayer for interior walls, regular ​spray paint in a can is much quicker when it comes to applying and drying time.

There is really no wrong choice. It comes down to the finalized project look and how much time you want to invest into the painting project.

Honestly, nothing beats Rust-Oleum for this. Its easy and the product is made for this type of cabinet.

Rust-Oleum 249131 11 oz Universal All Surface...
  • Works on virtually any surface including wood, plastic, metal, fiberglass, concrete, wicker, vinyl...
  • Oil-based formula with excellent adhesion prevents rust, resists fading and chipping for a long...
  • Fast drying formula dries to the touch in 30 minutes and covers up to 15 sq ft per can
  • Prevents rust and corrosion for enhanced durability

Now that you have an idea of what the best paints for metal cabinets are, you can gather the rest of your supplies and get ready to paint.

Oil Paint

Using oil based paint on your metal cabinets might a bit overkill, but it is definitely the option that gives you the best long term results. An oil paint is really thick and made to stand up over time, which be just want you need if this metal cabinet is in a high traffic area.

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

Prep is key, as you’ll need to prime the surface for the paint. You might need to etch the metal so that the paint sticks to the surface. Opt for the best cabinet paint sprayer – this will allow you to spray an even coat on the metal.

You can use a brush, it is just really hard to keep brush strokes from showing.

How to Paint Metal Cabinets

The first step you will want to take when you are learning how to paint metal cabinets with acrylic paint is to ​protect your surfaces​.

If you are painting indoors, make sure the floor and walls are covered. Newspaper, painter’s tarps, and painter’s tape are great for catching splashes and drips of paint while you are busy being Picasso.

Once your surfaces are covered, follow these steps to paint your metal cabinets.

  1. Clean the metal cabinets with soap and water to get rid of dirt, dust, and grime.
  2. ​Sand your metal cabinets with a 220 or higher grit. Make sure you remove all rust and smooth the surface.
  3. ​Apply your metal primer and allow it to dry completely.
  4. ​Paint the first coat. You can use a foam or bristled brush.
  5. ​Let it dry completely and then follow up with the second coat of paint.
  6. Once the second coat is dry you can decide to repeat this step and add a third or fourth coat.
  7. ​Once you are happy with the color, allow your cabinets to completely dry and then put away your supplies.

If you are painting a large space of cabinets, you won’t have to wait long in between coats since they will dry as you continue to paint. Use thin coats to help it dry quicker and keep an even look.

​You should also make sure that your metal cabinets are in perfect condition purpose wise before working on them, so that means taking out your sockets from their organizers and ​ensuring everything’s good to go.

How to Paint Metal File Cabinets

​File cabinets are not just for dull offices. You can brighten up your home and use them in ​unexpected ways to store things​. Learning how to paint a metal file cabinet is simple and can be done in a few hours, depending on how many coats you apply.

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

Before you begin painting, pull the drawers all the way out. Clean the entire file cabinet. Soap and water is best to get rid of any dirt and grime build up.

Skip sanding the entire file cabinet when you opt to paint ​with chalk paint. Just make sure there is no rust that needs to be sanded and removed before painting.

Chalk paint does not need a primer, so go ahead and dive into painting. You can use a brush or pour your chalk paint mixture into a paint sprayer to speed up the applying and drying process.

You will need to apply at least three coats, sometimes more depending on how the chalk paint dries. Once you have achieved the right color, you will want to ​apply chalk paint wax​ to seal in the paint. The wax will give off a faint sheen to the overall effect.

Apply the wax in small sections. Buff it off after a few minutes. It is suggested to apply a second coat of wax and buff it off again. You do not need to wait between wax coats when you are applying it.

​How to Paint Metal Lockers

Vintage metal lockers make great ​entryway or kid’s room storage​. You can customize the metal lockers to fit your home decor or give them a pop of color to stand out.

For painting metal lockers, your best result may come from spray paint. This will ensure paint gets into all the tight corners and crevices.

Remember to use the right method when it comes to spray painting. Keep the spray paint continually moving while the nozzle is down. Work in straight lines that flow back and forth across the project.

Christmas Scroll Saw Template Packs for Sale

You could follow these same steps for painting your very own gun safe or cabinet.

newly painted metal cabinet for decor how to paint metal cabinets

Two coats of spray paint should be enough. However, you can add a third if needed. When your metal lockers are completely dry, you can move and secure them into place.


Now that you know how to paint metal cabinets, you can get out there and bring new life to drab and dull metal pieces.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.