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How Can I Open a Locked File Cabinet?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

If you need to open a locked file cabinet and you have lost or misplaced the key, there are several different options you may want to consider. Some of the methods for doing this can be destructive, and include drilling the lock out, or prying the drawer open. If you do not wish to damage the lock or cabinet, then you will need to contact a locksmith or pick the lock yourself. A locksmith may be able to cut a new key for you by examining the lock for a code number, or pick the lock if no code number is present. Many filing cabinets use simple wafer locks though, which can often be picked by using a paperclip or even rocking a different key up and down while attempting to turn it.

The different methods of gaining access to a locked file cabinet each present benefits in certain situations. Your options may be limited based on factors such as the construction of the cabinet, type of lock, or the desire to avoid damaging either one. If you plan on disposing of the cabinet and lock, and simply want to access the contents, prying a drawer open is sometimes an option. Many filing cabinets are made of thin sheet metal that can be easily bent by a little pressure from a pry bar. This method requires bending the cabinet or drawer so that you gain access to the locking mechanism, which must also be bent out of the way.

Paperclips may be used to open a locked file cabinet.
Paperclips may be used to open a locked file cabinet.

Another method of gaining access to a locked file cabinet is drilling out the lock. The lock cylinder will need to be replaced afterwards, but you will typically avoid damaging the cabinet itself. You should typically begin the procedure with a drill bit that is slightly wider than the keyhole and attempt to drill through the pins. If you succeed, it will be possible to open the lock with a screwdriver. Otherwise you will need to use one or more larger bits to drill through the entire lock cylinder; be sure to wear safety goggles while doing this.

Padlocks may be used to secure file cabinets.
Padlocks may be used to secure file cabinets.

Professional locksmiths also have a few ways of dealing with locked file cabinets, so if you do not mind spending some money that is also an option. If your lock has a code number printed on the face of the lock or the bezel, a locksmith may be able to use that to cut you a new key. Locksmiths also have the necessary tools to pick such locks very quickly. Alternatively, by contacting the manufacturer of the cabinet, you may be able to obtain a new key or instructions for bypassing the lock.

Filing cabinets are often made of thin sheet metal that is easy to bend.
Filing cabinets are often made of thin sheet metal that is easy to bend.

Many file cabinets use wafer locks, so you may also want to consider picking it yourself. In order to pick these locks, all you need to do is push each wafer all the way up. One way to accomplish this is to insert a key for a different wafer lock and rock it up and down while you attempt to turn it. Any other thin piece of metal can also do the job, including a paperclip, nail file or knife. To gain access to a locked file cabinet that uses a more complex lock, you will typically need to purchase a professional lock picking kit.

How To Drill a Lock on a File Cabinet

A steel nail file may be used to pick a locked file cabinet.
A steel nail file may be used to pick a locked file cabinet.

Getting into a locked filing cabinet without a key can be challenging. But when you need to get inside, you want to exhaust all possibilities. One popular method is drilling the lock, which releases it from the filing cabinet and lets you open the drawers. You'll need a flathead screwdriver and a drill, of course, with some machine oil and a steel drill bit that fits the longest part of the keyhole entry point. Proceed carefully as you attempt to drill open the lock.

The Drilling Process

Before you begin, rub a little bit of machine oil onto the drill bit. This reduces any resulting friction as you're drilling into the lock. Start with your drill at medium speed, using steady and firm pressure. Keep going until the drill penetrates the lock mechanism, then switch your drill to reverse mode and carefully pull and the bit out of the lock.

Once you've extracted the drill, insert your flathead screwdriver into the lock mechanism's slot. Turn the screwdriver clockwise. If your first drilling round was successful, this will trip the lock's release lever. If not, you'll need to drill again using a larger-sized bit. Take care not to break any drill bits inside the lock. Try the screwdriver again once you've finished the second round of drilling. Repeated the process as needed until the release lever can be tripped.

How To Open a File Cabinet With a Broken Lock

Accessing a file cabinet with a broken lock can be even more frustrating. However, it's not impossible. Fortunately, the same procedure for drilling open a lock works on both functional and broken file cabinet locks.

You may have additional options, depending on the model of filing cabinet you have. Check for a vertical latch on the right side. If one is present, you may be able to open the cabinet by using a shim. You'll need something strong, such as a thin tapered piece of metal. Insert your shim on the right side of the second drawer. There should be a vertical bar that you can lift. With one hand on the handle of the drawer, work the release with your thumb while jimmying the shim inserted into the right side.

How To Open a Locked File Cabinet With a Paperclip

When you don't have a drill or a shim, you may be able to disengage a file cabinet lock by using a paperclip. Before you begin, straighten out one end of the paperclip while letting the other remain bent. Slide the curved tip of the paperclip into the lock's keyhole, positioning the paperclip vertically so that the curved end is pressed down on the interior of the lock.

After you've inserted the paperclip, lowly move it left to right: Proceed gingerly until you can detect how to push the pins down to spring the lock. Once the lock rotates to the side, you've successfully unlocked the filing cabinet. Carefully extract the paperclip when you're finished.

Opening the Lock With Bump Keys

If you've purchased bump keys in advance, you're in luck. Bump keys let you unlock a locked filing cabinet if you're missing the key. It's often easier than trying to drill the lock or using a paperclip to pick it. You can purchase bump keys at most hardware stores. They're an inexpensive investment that can save you a lot of time and headaches.

Bump keys are fashioned in shapes that fit (or closely fit) most file cabinet locks. Select the key that most resembles the lock on your filing cabinet. Slide it into the lock, then tilt and bump the key until you can successfully open the lock. If this method fails and you have no other options, your best bet is to call a locksmith.

Frequently Asked Questions

What tools do I need to open a locked file cabinet?

To open a locked file cabinet, you will need a few tools, including a flathead screwdriver, pliers, a drill with bits, and a hammer. If the lock is too damaged, you may also need to purchase a replacement lock. 

How do I pick a lock on a file cabinet?

To pick a lock on a file cabinet, you will need a lock pick tool, which has thin metal rods with hooks or grooves at one end. Insert the pick into the keyhole and feel for the pins. Press the pins down one by one until the lock opens.

How do I open a file cabinet without a key?

If you do not have a key to open a file cabinet, you can try several methods. You can pick the lock with a lock pick tool, drill out the lock, or use a screwdriver to pry it open. If these methods do not work, you may need to contact a locksmith or purchase a replacement lock.

How do I open a file cabinet with a combination lock?

To open a file cabinet with a combination lock, you must enter the correct combination of three or four digits in the correct order. You can find the combination on the lock or in the owner's manual. If you have lost the combination, contact the manufacturer to get a new one.

Can I replace the lock on a file cabinet?

Yes, you can replace the lock on a file cabinet. You may be able to purchase a replacement lock at a hardware store or contact a locksmith for help. If the old lock is damaged, you may need to drill it out to install a new one.

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    • Paperclips may be used to open a locked file cabinet.
      By: Jakub Krechowicz
      Paperclips may be used to open a locked file cabinet.
    • Padlocks may be used to secure file cabinets.
      By: VRD
      Padlocks may be used to secure file cabinets.
    • Filing cabinets are often made of thin sheet metal that is easy to bend.
      By: Kybele
      Filing cabinets are often made of thin sheet metal that is easy to bend.
    • A steel nail file may be used to pick a locked file cabinet.
      By: terex
      A steel nail file may be used to pick a locked file cabinet.