How to Pick a File Cabinet Lock

Imagine that you’re in a rush, and you’re looking for that one document. It’s nowhere to be found, and you’re freaking out. Suddenly, you remember putting it in the file cabinet, and you breathe a sigh of relief, but guess what: it’s locked, and the keys have vanished! What do you do now?

Even though our evolution as humans has long surpassed those of other animals, one primal instinct that we still carry with us is the instinct to keep things safe. In fact, we’ve become so good at keeping things safe that we sometimes end up locking ourselves out! For such situations, learning how to open a locked cabinet using simple tools is a neat skill that can save you the panic and the anxiety.

This is why in today’s post, we’ll tell you all about how to pick an office file cabinet lock using simple items, as well as how a simple cabinet lock works.

How Does a File Cabinet Lock Work?

File cabinet locks are among the simplest type of locks you can find. Similar to bike locks, they are easy to pick if you’re in a pinch, but you need to know how it works.

Cabinet locks have two main components: the cylinder that houses the lock and the actual locking tumbler located in the center. A bolt that can be turned is attached to the tumbler part, and it slides in and out with the help of a key to lock or unlock the cabinet.

When a key is inserted, its indentations fit the tumbler’s inner shape, and the bolt slides, allowing you to turn the key to either lock or unlock the cabinet.

Many locks on the market use this simple mechanism. The locks may be made of more durable materials, and the keys can be longer and have more intricate designs, but the basic principle is the same.

Now that we know how a cabinet lock mechanism works let’s look at some of the ways you can open one easily.

How to Pick a File Cabinet Lock

The most popular tools for this task are paper clips and nail clippers that leave your lock intact. Before we move on to more destructive methods, let’s walk you through these methods first.

How to Pick a File Cabinet Lock With Paper Clips

This is probably the most common tool you can use to pick a lock, and luckily it can also be easily found in any office. You should pick one that isn’t too thick or too thin and flimsy. A regular-size paper clip should do the trick.

After finding a bendable paper clip that can fit in the keyhole, you need to straighten out the paper clip. Straighten it to a length that you can be inserted into the lock all the way to reach the bolt, but make sure to leave a small part slightly bent at the tip.

Once your tool is ready, insert it into the keyhole. The bent tip should be positioned vertically to activate the mechanism. Gently, start turning the paperclip to the left and right, but be careful not to force anything. If the lock doesn’t unlock after a few tries, you can take another straightened paperclip without the bent tip and insert it into the keyhole to help the process.

The motion you should be going for is gently scraping along the pins, so use in and out motion while applying an upward (gentle) force. This process is called raking, and it should be able to activate the mechanism in seconds.

Once you turn the keyhole horizontally, take the paper clip out, and voila! Your cabinet is now unlocked, and if you’ve done everything correctly, the lock should still be usable. If you don’t have paperclips laying around, there’s another common tool you can use.

How to Pick a File Cabinet Lock With Nail Clippers

Another tool you can use that can be easily found is nail clippers.

What we’re looking for here is not the clippers themselves but the small nail file that comes attached with it. Thanks to the thin shape and the hook-like bent tip, these nail files can work wonders when you’re in a pinch. However, if your nail file doesn’t have a bent tip, this method won’t work.

With your small nail file at hand, point the hook-like end of the file down and insert it into the keyhole. Push the file into the hole as much as you can: the metal file should be inserted all the way in to activate the pins inside the mechanism.

Once the nail file is all the way in there, gently start moving it up and down. If you imagine the inside of the lock mechanism, what we’re trying to do here is push all the pins in place. Therefore, the motion you’re aiming for is repeatedly pushing the tip down as you lift the end that you’re holding.

If you do it correctly, the lock should come undone in mere seconds. However, if it still doesn’t open, you might have a broken lock on your hands. Here’s one last method you can try if that’s the case.

Last Resort: How to Open a Locked Filing Cabinet With a Drill

We should note that this one is a destructive method that is sure to work, but it’ll render your cabinet lock useless afterward.

If you’ve tried the first two methods we covered and still couldn’t unlock your file cabinet, you can also give a key from a similar cabinet a try before going ham on your lock. This method doesn’t work every time, but it doesn’t hurt to try!

If the other two methods have failed and you don’t have a similar key, it’s time to bring out the big guns. This method is pretty straightforward. Using caution, start drilling into the keyhole at a low-speed setting. You can go up to a higher speed setting if it isn’t working.

Once the drill is all the way inside, drill in reverse for a few seconds. When you see the lock cylinder coming out of the cabinet, you’ve succeeded!


Knowing how to open a locked file cabinet without a key is a crucial skill that can save you a lot of stress and time, and luckily, it can be done using simple tools like a paper clip or a nail file. You can also try another key from a similar lock, which may work, but it’s not guaranteed.

Lastly, you can use a drill to break open the lock, but keep in mind that this method calls for a lock replacement afterward. If you don’t have a drill at hand, you can always get help from a professional by calling a locksmith.

Cabinets are great tools to keep your files organized, but if you want to be able to find everything quickly, you need more than that. To learn more, you can check out our post on how to organize your office space and get some ideas.

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