file cabinet smoker: behind the smokescreens



A banner ad is the reason this project exists. I saw one for a file cabinet smoker build when I was researching bedframe designs and had to investigate… It marinated in the back of my mind as a ridiculous scenario for several months without any real action towards realizing it. Then one day, the stars aligned. I was hunting for a proper bookshelf and I stumbled upon the perfect file cabinet. I knew this silly premise was meant to be reality. And so it is.

Choosing a file cabinet is the most important part. I recycled mine from a local recycling center. From my original research, I wanted to find one that was a little older, because newer file cabinets use plastic parts on the drawer’s slide rollers. I really wasn’t trying to disassemble every cabinet drawer completely to replace some plastic washers with metal ones. I’d have to do that, so drawers can still roll and food can be safely cooked, without fear of toxic fumes from heated plastic. The cabinet I found was all metal, exactly what I needed. If you can weld, you might try only reusing the drawer faces & cabinet shell. Older file cabinets have their own problems, in that they may have lead-based paint. The paint was going to go regardless of cabinet age, but still. Once you’ve found a file cabinet that you want to work with, you’ll need some other supplies.


Item Quantity Note
File Cabinet 1 As many drawers as you like, mine has 4.
Metal Grate 3 1 less than the # of drawers. Don’t get galvanized steel, it’s unsafe for cooking.
Thermometer 3 One for each drawer with a grate. Grill thermometers work great.
Nut & Washer 3 pair To secure thermometer to drawer. Came included with the thermometers I bought.
Floor Vent 1-2 Adjustable vents to help regulate airflow + smoke output. Back vent optional.
Spraypaint 3 cans I used heat-resistant flat black grill paint. Totally optional.
Power Tools Power drill, and Sawzall. Used to cut holes for grates & vents.
Wire snips Aviation snips to help with hole cutting.
Sandpaper sheets on sheets To help get paint off. A power sander would help a lot probably.
Fire materials 🔥🔥🔥 Wood, charcoal, lighterfluid (only recommended for the initial fires, not cooking)
  • I ordered the thermometers from Amazon, I think they were around $4 each.
  • Home Depot sold the perfect size grill grates, small enough to fit in the drawer, big enough to have sufficient cooking area exposed to smoke.
  • Home Depot also sold the paint.
  • And the floor vents. and the tools.


Decide how you want your smoker(/bbq) to function. My cabinet has 4 drawers, and is set up for the bottom box to be a firebox, the second lowest drawer has my water / drip container, and the top two drawers are for food. I usually keep my veggies in the top drawer, so that meat doesn’t drip onto them.

You also need to determine how you want your firebox to function. It can be as simple as starting a fire in the drawer (what I’ve chosen to do) or, if you want more temperature control, by using a gas burner or electric stove. You would then need to connect the hose to the propane tank or wire to an outlet.

If you can weld, you might try only reusing the drawer faces & cabinet shell. Having the drawer faces swing outwide like a door would give you a lot more space to configure shelving or possible hanging setups, and better control of how the smoke fills the box overall. Some welding is handy if you are using a smaller, less vertical, file cabinet(s), say one or two drawers, because then you can weld a smaller firebox to the side entirely, for more of a cold smoke.


  1. Cut a hole in a box.
  2. But seriously, we’re gonna measure some things first. My file cabinet has 8 holes of varying sizes, some much larger than others.
    • 1 hole in the very top of the cabinet shell, for smoke to get out. We’re going to put a floor vent here, to help regulate how much smoke escapes.
    • 1 large hole in every drawer bottom that isn’t the firebox. For the grate.
    • Just make the hole a little smaller than the grate and you won’t need to weld anything
    • 1 small hole on the front face of each of the drawers that you just cut large holes in.
      • My file cabinet drawers had a knob below the handles. I removed those and put the thermometers there. You may need to drill a hole.
    • 1 hole in the back, towards the bottom, so the fire can breathe. The other floor vent (if you bought it) goes here.
  3. While you’ve got the drawers open for measuring, now is a good time to remove any locking mechanisms.
    • It’s a pain if you get locked out, especially if you don’t have a key. I was lucky I had a hole cut in the top already before it happened. Take the locking mechanism off ASAP.
  4. Measure & mark the holes.
  5. Now we cut holes in the box.
    • To cut each hole, there was a bit of a process. First, take a powerdrill with a decent size bit (I used 3/8), and make two or three holes next to each other, through the file cabinet metal.
    • Use the wire snips to connect those holes and snip away until you have an opening that is large enough to safely fit & start the sawzall blade in.
    • Sawzall down the length of the hole side.
    • Repeat as needed for other sides.
    • Wiresnip away any rough/dangerous edges.
  6. After the holes are cut, put all grates, thermometers, and vents in place.
  7. Now, we discover fire.
    • For this first fire, I just wanted to see if things would burn, temperatures would rise, smoke would travel through drawers, etc. etc. Testing. This is where I found I needed to remove the vent on the bottom entirely for enough air to reach the fire.
    • Adjust hole sizes / vent openings / amount of wood on the fire / etc until you’re satisfied with test results.
  8. Time to get rid of all the inside paint! We don’t want that on our food. Spoiler: we’re going to light more fires.
    • I brushed everything inside the cabinet with some olive oil. The cabinet walls, the drawer walls, all of it.
    • Then, I easily tripled the amount of wood I put in the cabinet for the first fire. This fire is the hottest my smoker has burned, because I filled every drawer with wood and kindling, to make sure that enough heat & smoke hit the paint anywhere it was.
    • When this fire died out, almost all of the paint had either burnt off or easily peeled away in large, crisp, flakes. For the patches that didn’t, I sanded them out with lots of sandpaper.
    • Sandpapering was hard work, and the drawers had lots of weird crinkles I couldn’t sand, so I stopped doing that and decided I wanted to get on with it.
    • One more test fire, smaller this time, just to clear everything out & give our newly exposed metal insides a nice smoky coating.
  9. Paint the outside!
    • Remove your thermometers. I originally took the top vent out but having the different colors looked pretty goofy, so I painted it too.
    • I needed just under 3 cans to evenly coat a 4-drawer file cabinet.
  10. Cook!

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