Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial 16 drawer index card filing cabinet

I suppose if you’re gonna goin “all-in” on having a zettelkasten (slip box) or index card-based commonplace book you may as well invest in some serious atomic-era heavy steel hardware…

So today I took the plunge and picked up a Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial index card filing cabinet. It’s the sort of thing that Niklas Luhmann or Roland Barthes may have only dreamt of.

Angle on an open drawer with two individual card files
One of the double drawers pulled out.

The monster has 8 sliding platform chassis with 16 removable file drawers. I’ve done a little bit of clean up on it, but it has been well loved over time. Much like my prior furniture refurbishment projects, I expect I’ll bead blast off the original finish and rust and re-enamel it. I’m debating colors or potentially going brushed steel with heavy clear coat, though that’s a lot of work for the size and configuration. I’m initially thinking perhaps gunmetal grey with metallic blue flecked paint to match my desk, or perhaps a fun orange highlight color on the drawer fronts?

Specifications

Singer Business Furniture, Corry Jamestown index card filing cabinet (114 OB)

  • 8 slider chassis with 16 individually (and easily) removeable drawers
  • Exterior dimensions: 22 7/8″ wide x 52″ tall x 28 3/4″ deep
  • Interior drawer dimensions: 9 3/8″ wide x 4 3/4″ tall x 27 3/8″ deep (or 26 1/8″ deep with the card stops installed)
  • Fits cards: 3×5″, 4×6″, 7 3/8 x 3 1/4″ (Hollerinth cards)
  • Removable metal slider card stops
  • 13 removeable index card rods (3 missing)
  • Aluminum drawer pulls
  • Aluminum label frames
  • Original industrial beige color, chipped and scratched
  • 20 gauge steel

I thought about weighing it, but the thing is just too big for any of the nearby scales I’ve got access to. It’s definitely a bear to move even by sliding and required a heavy dolly and at least two people to maneuver. Three or more would be required to pick it up physically.  One drawback to the size and weight is that it isn’t easily portable if there were an emergency, but the construction is so solid that it should definitely survive the most dire earthquakes or possibly nuclear bomb blasts. I suspect it’ll be a bit before I have multiple drawers full, so I can always individually remove active drawers.

A quick calculation on the front of an index card—no more backs of envelopes for me!—indicates that packs of relatively standard Oxford index cards should put the capacity of this monster at 55,700 index cards (with the drawer stops in place).

Photos

Features

The drawers should be nice and roomy for the 4×6″ index cards I’ve been using, but can also accommodate collections of smaller 3×5″ cards I’ve got.

While the drawers come with index card rods to hold the cards physically in their files, I suspect I won’t be using them. They seem to be of a design that would require custom cards for utilizing this feature anyway. I do quite like the rod design as the thumbscrews on the outside have small nubs on them with a key-like cut out on the drawer front with a compression washer. One then inserts the rod, fits it into the moveable card stop, and pushes it into the keyhole. A quarter or half turn of the rod and thumbscrew locks the rod into the cabinet.

The index card file stops are easily removable and have a simple springloaded clamp mechanism for moving them easily within the drawer. 

While used, the entire thing is in generally excellent shape. Almost all the original hardware is still extant and the drawer mechanisms all slide smoothly, so those won’t require much, if any real work.

Because the filing cabinet is so massive and generally immovable, a fun and terrifically convenient feature is that each of the 16 file drawers are individually removable. This allows one to take a particular drawer or two to their desk and work on them before needing to return them to the cabinet when one is done. To make this drawer movement easier, in addition to the explicit handle on the front of each drawer, there’s an oval hole on the back of each drawer which functions as a handle on the other end.  This is likely how I’ll use it, at least until I’ve refinished the cabinet and the drawers and move it into my office space permanently. 

Individual drawers of cards can be removed from the filing cabinet. Here's one that has been removed and is sitting sideways on top of the file drawer that had been pulled out.
One of the individual file drawers removed and sitting on its mate.

Because the files are wide and long enough, I might also profitably use the file for holding 8 1/2 x 11″ material stacked up in piles if necessary. 

Naming

Some have talked about naming their zettelkasten. I’ve been considering calling the whole cabinet “The Ark of Studies” (Arca studiorum) after Thomas Harrison’s invention in the 1640s as it also contains a nod to Hugh of St. Victor’s mnemonic work relating to Noah’s Ark. Perhaps I’ll hame it Stonehenge II, because I’ll rely on it as a “forgetting machine” and it’s almost as big and heavy as a bluestone from the Preseli Hills in Wales—especially if I paint it that color. Beyond this perhaps I might give each individual drawer a name. This leaves sixteen slots, so I’m thinking about naming them after famous figures in the history of note taking and related spaces of intellectual history.

Right now it’ll likely be a subset of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Rodolphus Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Thomas Harrison, Vincentius Placcius, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin (I’ve got to have a drawer dedicated to comedy right?), Twyla Tharp, and Eminem. Who else am I missing? Who should I consider?

Oddities

Being a piece of used office furniture, it naturally came with some surplus junk inside. Most of this was of the paperclip and rubber band nature with plenty of dust and lint. There were a full collection of drawer labels with someone’s handwritten numbers for the files the card index once contained. Unexpected finds included some screws, nuts and bolts, part of a hacksaw blade, a rotary saw blade, some drill bits, a socket wrench fitting, and—most puzzling—a live round of ammunition! Every zettelkasten should have one of these right? 

view of bullet from behind as it sits on filing cabinet
The oddest thing I found hiding in my new slip box.

So go ahead and bite the bullet! Get your own cabinet, and start your analog zettelkasten today.

 

Refinished Architect’s Table from The General Fireproofing Co.

The Newest Piece Comes Home

It’s been far too long since I’ve done a furniture refurbish project, so it’s extra nice to finally have this fantastic piece move into the family room today.

I’ll probably post something more detailed at a later date with some “before” pictures, but these few “after” photos will have to suffice for now.

History

I acquired this 20 gauge steel, stick leg, architect’s table originally manufactured by The General Fireproofing Co. of Youngstown, Ohio eight or so years back as part of a scrap sale. It was once owned by the National Bureau of Standards and had some markings and scrap paper hiding underneath the drawer which made me think that it was previously owned by a college, university, or similar institution in the Southern California region. It’s been hiding patiently in the garage as a general work table in service to my Little Free Library. I’ll have to dig into some paperwork to find it, but I recall this being circa 1959 from my research. It wasn’t in as bad a condition as some of my past projects. The original linoleum top was almost in good enough condition that I seriously considered keeping it.

Refinishing and Specifications

I started cleaning it up in November 2021 and have finally moved it into the house today with a 1/4″ clear annealed 29 3/4″ x 49 3/4″ polished glass top with 1 1/2″ radius corners.

The table itself is refinished in an electric sort of robin’s egg-color called “Waterfall” (SW 6750, loc #162-C1; DE 5722 RL#267, LRV 68, Munsell: Hue=7.36BG, Value=8.5, Chroma=2.6; BM 2050-50, LRV 55.75). The original linoleum top, which actually wasn’t in horrible condition, was completely stripped off, and I did the same sort of brushed steel process as my last tanker desk. There is a bit of blemish on the table top surface in the form of black flecking with a few small manufacturing blemishes that were left untouched for show before throwing down eight layers of clear coat. I also left a few incredibly minor dings to the body and legs for character instead of doing any bondo work.

It’s still got the original General Fireproofing Co. badging. I’ve also left all the original drawer pulls and metal leg caps, though I’ve cleaned them up quite a bit. It has presently got all the original screws, nuts and bolts as well, though many are rusted and in poor though functional condition. Perhaps I’ll replace those with new fittings in the near future, but I’ll have to hunt down the specs and find something that will stand up a bit better for the next century.

I’ve added some 1/2″ thick heavy felt pads on the feet to prevent scratching on the floor as the table is quite heavy. I’ve also got some temporary cork pads between the tabletop and the glass which I’ll probably replace with some decorative felt sometime soon.

You never know what you’ll find when you strip the tops of these types of pieces, but all-in it came out far better than I expected. It truly is stunning.

What’s next?

Still in the queue for future projects, two stick leg chairs, a panel leg architect’s table, and a 1930’s double pedestal tanker desk all of which I have on hand. I’m also due to reupholster a few chairs. If anyone comes across any, I’m on the look out for a 4×6″ index card filing cabinet, a multi-drawer flat file I can convert into a coffee table, and a credenza. 

Commissions

I’ve done this enough times now, I’m contemplating taking commissions from folks who have ideas for pieces. I’ve seen some of the tanker desks go for between $3,000 and $5,000 on Melrose or at HD Buttercup in Los Angeles, but by comparison, I’ve got a far better finishing process for these with better results than I’ve seen in any of the high end showrooms. With the right price on a scrapped or distressed piece, I think I can significantly beat the high end shops and provide a better look and value.

I suspect that when I refinish my next tanker desk for my office, I might be willing to sell the one I’ve been using for the past 13 years

Little Red Wagon Cocktails

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Vintage Tanker Desk Hobby

I had always wanted a nice McDowell & Craig vintage executive dual pedestal tanker desk, but the $2,000-$3,000 price tags for the ones in excellent condition or that had been refinished was way too steep for me. Some of the others I’ve seen for sale at lower prices were in mediocre shape and were in such ugly institutional colors, I couldn’t imagine having one at home.

Unfinished Desk

Unfinished Desk - Rusted Top

Late last year, I found a couple from the 1950’s and 60’s that were in horrible physical shape that were going to be scrapped for their steel. I got both of them for $10 bucks and did some research on how to refurbish them myself.

I stripped off the corroded, stained, and torn linoleum off the tops, took them to a local place that does sandblasting to have them stripped and then sanded down the heavily rusting portions. (These desks are usually made of heavy 20 gauge solid steel, so they’re literally the “tanks” of office furniture.) Both were in relatively good condition structurally and didn’t have any significant body damage aside from some significant rust, so I decided not to bondo the couple of dings they had, which in the end I think just adds to their vintage beauty.

Jr. Tanker Desk - Unfinished with rusted bottom

For the blue/gray one I found an industrial paint shop to do an old style enamel process. For the smaller red one, I sandblasted and painted/sealed the undercarriage and inside drawers and then used a special brushing process to obtain a nice brushed steel effect followed by a 5 layer clear coat seal to give it a high shine while still having the brushed steel visible through the clear coat.
Partially refinished tanker desk chair with blue upholstry

Finally, I tried to find a place to recreate the original linoleum desktops, but there really isnt’ a supplier who does this and some of the alternatives were prohibitively expensive as was the process of redoing the metal trim to hold it on after the fact. I contemplated doing some various laminates and even formica, but ultimately decided that the bare metal top was too pretty to cover up. I finally gave a local glass shop a template for the top of the desk and had them cut out custom 1/4″ glass tops with rounded corners to match the desk shape and then bevel the edges slightly.

Finished Executive Tanker Desk in gunmetal grey with blue highlighted drawers

At long last they’re now both finished!  They are truly beautiful and it’s nice having a desk about the size of a compact car and certainly as heavy! When I originally got the desks, Sonia refused to let me keep them they were in such terrible shape, and I spent a while convincing her to let me keep them. Once the first one was done she forbid me to “hide” it in our office and insisted that I put it in our living room because it was so pretty. I finally got the second one finished and gave it to her for her birthday in September.

Jr. Executive Tanker desk with clear coated metal and red highlighted drawers

It’s been an interesting enough process with such a beautiful end result, that I’m in the midst of acquiring a few additional desks including one that may be from the 30’s/40’s with some nice art deco design touches.

So I suppose I’m calling it my “hobby” at the moment.

I’ve posted a gallery of additional photos of the desks on Flickr.