I originally built my own dirt sifter for a large landscaping project in which I needed to remove about a quarter ton of stone and gravel from an area of my yard where I wanted to plant grass. The stone and gravel had mixed in with the soil over time and the entire area needed to be cleaned up. The easiest way to do this was to build a stone screen which allowed me to sift out the good dirt and remove the rocks and other debris.
Building the Soil Sifter
Using a reciprocating saw I cut two 24″ long pieces of 2x4s and 2 20″ sections of 2x4s, laid them out in a rectangular patten and simply screwed them together at the corner. I chose that size because it wasn’t too heavy and the roll of steel screen I had picked up was exactly 24 inches wide. That meant I could just unroll a section of screen, cut it to length and attach it to the frame. There are different types of metal screens with varying hole sizes and wire gauges, so you’ll want to choose something appropriate for your needs. I believe I used 1/4″ galvanized steel screen.
I admit that I made a few mistakes with the method used to attach the screen to the underside of the wooden frame when I was initially building this dirt sifter. At first I tried just screwing the metal screen to the frame, but the screen tended to rip around the screws. I next tried using large staples to hold the screen tight, but I found that they couldn’t hold the screen in place when a lot of rocks and dirt were placed in the frame. I finally settled on a system that worked: I used four long steel plates that I picked up from the door and hinge section of my local hardware store. I was able to screw these plates into the bottom of the frame. This created a clamping pressure which keeps the screen in place without directly ripping or twisting the wire. This has held up very well so far and if I ever do need to replace the screen I only have about 16 screws to take out with the electric drill.
Sifter Stones from Dirt
At first I just used the sifter as a kind of depository that I had to pick up and shake. I’d place the dirt sifter across my little wheelbarrow, shovel a few load of stone and dirt on it, put my shovel down and then lift the sifter, shaking it back and forth in front of me, letting the dirt fall into the wheelbarrow, leaving the stones and twigs and debris in the sifter. I would then dump the sifter debris in an old bucket and start again.
My back was kill me the next day because I was lifting the sifter filled with sand, dirt and stones on my own.
So I went back to the drawing board with my sifter. I needed some way to emulate the sifting motion without actually picking up the screen filled with dirt and rocks. I thought about attaching lawnmower tires, but the cheapest tires I could find where too large for what I needed and cost nearly $8.00 a piece.
While I was mulling over other options in my head I happened to end up shopping for baby accessories at a local toy store and found a mini skateboard. Skateboard wheels are small and incredibly tough and have their own ball bearings built in, so they fit the bill perfectly. It also helped that the skateboard was on sale for $5.00! I removed the wheels from the skateboard trucks and ran a lag bolt through each removed skateboard wheel, making sure about a half inch or so of the wheel was below the bottom of the frame. A quick addition of wheels made my sifter mobile!
All I needed now was a track over my wheelbarrow to roll them on, so I laid out a relatively simple track made out of those same leftover 2x4s. Using wood screws I put the whole thing together in about 20 minutes so now I can place this little rack over a wheelbarrow or saw horses or whatever I need to sift my dirt into. For my purposes these wooden rails would fit perfectly over a set of sawhorses I set up and then I’d just sift the dirt right to the ground, dumping the rocks and stones from the sifter into the wheelbarrow.
The Stone Sifting Process
I’ve used this dirt sifter many times over the years and it’s held up pretty well. I’ve had to replace the screen twice in six years, which is pretty easy to do since I used wood screws for everything. The general soil screening process goes something like this:
- Dig: I dig out four or five shovels full of dirt and stone and deposit them into the sifter.
- Sift: I quickly roll the sifter back and forth on the wooden frame that is perched on top of the sawhorses. I can actually do this with one hand if I get lazy. It only takes a minute or two at most to sift out a full load.
- Rake: All the dirt falls into a nice pile of finely sifted dirt down below which I simply rake or shovel over the excavation area at end of each night.
- Dump: I pick the screen up and dump the stones and debris into the wheelbarrow at my side. When the wheelbarrow is full I take it over to another part of my yard where I have a fairly good-sized pile building up.
A few years after building this I went looking around the internet and found that several other people have taken my design and built their own sifters with various modifications. Good for them! So far my back has thanked me about 1000 times over for not hoisting up that big frame filled with dirt and stone, so all my effort was worth it!
Once I’m done this project I’m still going to save my little screen machine for other home improvement jobs around the house such as composting and other jobs where I have to separate the dirt or soil from various types of debris.
Video Demo of My Home Built Dirt Sifter
There are obviously lots of unique modifications and changes you can make on your own rock screener, depending upon your needs and resources. If you’ve put together your own soil sifter then leave a comment and I’ll link back to it so everyone can see!