How to buy a cabinet

Since buying my steel insect cabinets a few people have asked me for advice and guidance to help them do the same. Sadly, the whole business is riddled with pitfalls so you must tread carefully.

The 3 main components of a cabinet system are: the cabinet itself (in this case steel); the drawers (usually hardwood & glass topped); and the lining (foam strips or unit trays).

Of course, if you buy a complete system off-the-shelf from a manufacturer (like PEL) then you will have very few problems … except finding the money to pay for them. It is usually possible to get a better deal if you make contact with a large museum and then put together a system based around spare drawers they are willing to sell and match them with a new steel cabinet. The museum can often supply the unit trays to fit the drawers and will have the expertise to be able to tell you whether your plans are realistic.

The first problem is that there are very few ‘standard’ drawer sizes and actually it is common for different museums to have standardised on different sized drawers (Oxford University Museum vs. British Museum/Cardiff etc.) and even to have different sized drawers for accessions or between departments (Lepidoptera vs. other orders). There are always good reasons for these discrepancies but it doesn’t help anyone planning to put together their own system.

There are no standard sizes of unit-tray either – they are usually made to order to fit the drawers that the museum has chosen to use. So, this is another good reason to source the drawers from a large museum because they will have the buying power to order lots of the components and keep the prices down.

Anyway, enough of the problems … here is the strategy I used to buy my setup:

  • Decide where you will get the drawers. I chose the NHM because Max Barclay was selling some very nice hardwood drawers for a very reasonable price – £30 each. He could guarantee that they would fit my pin sizes and they had a lot of them so stock wasn’t a problem.
  • Make sure you can source all the unit trays or foam lining strips now and in the future … again, the NHM could guarantee that. They have huge buying power so the unit trays cost about £10 per drawer.
  • Find a steel cabinet manufacturer who can make something to fit your drawers. I used CDS because they had just been fitting out the Darwin Center and could just add a few extra cabinets onto their order. The cabinets were a one-off price but expect to pay about £450 per cabinet at normal rates … and budget another £100 for a plinth to lift the cabinet off the floor and away from dust.

The cabinets themselves were described as: NHM a Type ‘A’ cabinet (18x drawers); takes a drawer size of 460w x 500d x 60h; overall size is 536w x 1185h x 600d.

The drawers were: Dimensions (W x D x H): 444 x 442 (465 including brass knob) x 57 mm. Cardiff museum specification. Brass knob plus 2 brass card holders.


3 Replies to “How to buy a cabinet”

  1. Precious wisdom for any of us trying to move to storage in a Continental-dept cabinet. I’ve entered negotiations with CDS. Their contact has been most helpful, and the price looks like being half that quoted by PEL. If, despite this, you decide to use PEL, then beware that there are charges ontop of the charges. I gave up when (having completed a web transaction) I was invoiced a figure £340 higher. Thank you. Richard

  2. Thanks Richard. I probably should add that I don’t endorse PEL in any way but it was just one of the companies that came up prominently in Google searches when you try to research this kind of purchase. 🙂 If you can think of any more tips then I’d be happy to add them to my mini-article because I get the feeling that unless you work for a museum this kind of project is filled with pit-falls. I’d like to help amateur entomologists protect their collections and not fall foul of any of the potential problems 😉

  3. Hi Chris,

    Just a reminder that Ampfab are still producing good quality cabinets to bespoke sizes and we have sourced a Czech supplier who does good quality drawers at a reasonable cost, we are happy to produce one off units for people in any colour.

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