Antique Oak File Cabinet Styles and Their Elegant Appeal

Updated April 7, 2021
Vintage wooden flipping cabinets

A quick way to set the tone for your professional space and keep yourself organized is for you to add an antique oak file cabinet. These multifunctional golden-hued pieces of furniture were sturdily built and can bring a sense of warmth to an otherwise cold home office. Check out what to look for when buying antique filing cabinets and how to select the best one for your space.

Oak Filing Cabinets Throughout History

Traditional filing cabinets first developed in the mid-19th century, with the conventional three-drawer and four-drawer filing cabinets that are often used today being introduced onto the market by the end of the century. Between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, filing cabinets were crafted out of hardwoods, with American oak being a particular favorite for many manufacturers. Collectors gravitate towards oak filing cabinets because of the warm patina that they develop over time. By the latter half of the 20th century, businesses and offices had turned towards using lighter, more inexpensive methods of organization like steel and aluminum cabinets, but that doesn't mean that there isn't still a significant market for these wood cabinets.

Benefits of Using Oak for Cabinetry

Oak is a commonly used hardwood in furniture manufacturing for a variety of reasons, some of which include:

  • Scratch resistance - Oak is a hardwood that's pretty scratch resistant, which makes it perfect for the continual wear and tear of opening and closing file drawers.
  • Warm patina - Oak's natural coloring only gets richer over time, meaning that furniture made using oak will have a lasting appearance.
  • Affordable - Given the abundance of oak trees, furniture can be made out of oak and sold for relatively low-costs.

How to Assess Antique Oak File Cabinets

Since oak is such a timeless material, new filing cabinets can sometimes masquerade as antiques. There are a few different characteristics that you can use to discern if an oak filing cabinet is indeed an antique or a modern imposter.

  • Solid oak vs. oak veneers - Most often, antique oak filing cabinets are going to be made out of solid oak and not oak veneers. If you can see oak paneling lifting from the shelves or frames, it might be veneers and indicate that the cabinet was manufactured more recently.
  • Asymmetry - Check the joints around the entire cabinet and see if the dovetailing is irregular; precisely fit dovetails can indicate that the piece was manufactured by machines instead of made by hand.
  • Signs of wear - Check for signs of wear on areas of the cabinet that people would frequently touch, like handles, the edges of drawers, and so on. If these look irregularly worn in comparison to the wood on say the back of the cabinet, chances are high that your oak cabinet is quite old.
Oak graphics cabinet from the director's office

Design Characteristics of Antique Oak File Cabinets

One of the more unusual characteristics of antique oak filing cabinets is that stylistically many of them don't look that old; in fact, a majority of antique oak file cabinets would look right at home on the shelves of your local Target or Home Goods. Some variations that you can find when looking to add an antique oak filing cabinet include:

  • Number of drawers - Typically, antique oak filing cabinets have around four separate drawers, although some cabinets come with a much higher number of smaller sized drawers. You might even find specialized cabinets with tons of small drawers which were used to hold artwork, scientific specimens, or apothecary goods.
  • Upright vs. stacking - You can find both antique vertical and horizontal oak cabinets, but those made with drawers that stack on top of one another, rather than being a fully attached set, are rarer to find.
Amberg's Cabinet Letter File

Antique Oak Filing Cabinet Values

Given their timelessness, antique filing cabinets are quite popular, and those crafted from oak are always in high demand. Since the furniture business is notoriously expensive, antique oak filing cabinets can end up being quite pricey, generally costing around $1,000 at the very least, with older and more ornate oak filing cabinets fetching higher prices. For example, a 1915 oak 4-drawer filing cabinet was sold for a little over $1,200, and a 1900 oak rolltop courthouse filing cabinet recently sold for almost $3,500. Considering that furniture sellers know their market, the cheapest way for you to find an antique oak filing cabinet is to locate one in a thrift store or an antique store that might not be specialized in antique furniture since they might price their cabinets lower than their actual values.

Caring for Antique Oak Filing Cabinets

With all antique woods, it's important to keep them out of the way of direct sunlight and moisture because both of these things can do significant damage to the wood. Also, keep your wood furniture away from direct heat since they can easily turn into a fire hazard. Every six months to a year, you'll want to clean and polish your antique oak furniture using these helpful tips.

Woman shaping wood with rasp

Office Furniture Made to Last

Furniture just isn't crafted with the same intention of longevity as it was a hundred years ago and adding any antique wood furniture into your home can save you thousands of dollars in replacement costs of inexpensive, but cheaply made, furniture. So, if you're trying to organize your life and want to stay organized for decades to come, check out adding an antique oak file cabinet to your home.

Antique Oak File Cabinet Styles and Their Elegant Appeal