Best way to sift rocks from dirt

Our off-grid homestead has a lot of perks… and a lot of rocks. For most of our homesteading projects, they’ve simply gotten in the way. Now, that’s changed, and it’s all thanks to Jesse.

He recently designed a new tool for us that works to easily and effectively remove rocks from our soil, resulting in valuable fill dirt on our property.

If you’ve been following our adventures for a while, you know we worked way too hard this past fall in an attempt to install our water system before winter. We put an enormous amount of work into it and eventually had to admit defeat once the soil froze and became too hard for us to work it anymore.

That said, before the soil froze, we had a chance to try our hand at building our own rocky grizzly and in three works… IT . IS. AWESOME.

Now that it’s spring, we’ve made some updates to our rock filter, and we’re using it even more! It’s really earning its keep as a permanent tool on our property.

Why Filter Rocks From Soil?

In the mining world, the process of separating rocks from dirt and debris is fairly essential, so miners rely on a tool called a grizzly to do the hard work for them.

Mining grizzlies are built from steel and essentially work as a big colander to strain out soil from rocks and put them both into neat, usable piles.

Digging trenches for burying our water cisterns left us with piles of rocks and dirt all over the place. We can’t put these rocks back into the trenches because there’s a good chance they could damage the cistern tanks (some of them weigh over 400 pounds!).

In fact, this already happened to our septic system when we were getting it installed. A rock fell and hit it exactly right, causing a huge hole. According to our installers, they’d never seen that happen before, so lucky us. As you can probably imagine, finding a way to avoid this problem again quickly became a high priority.

Buying rock-free backfill is always an option, but paying money for things we can do ourselves go against our mentality of debt-free independence. Check out our expense reports to get an idea of what we do choose to spend our money on.

For this reason, Jesse tried his hand at making his own rock grizzly out of wood scraps and chicken wire, and it actually worked, especially after a few improvements.

Our clean, rock-free soil for backfilling.

Just some of the rocks that we removed from the soil.

Making Our HUGE Rock Filter

For a first attempt at an innovative project, this was surprisingly successful. While there’s already a list of improvement ideas for next time, the fact that this rock grizzly worked at all feels like an awesome achievement.

The actual structure of our rock grizzly was simple. It’s just a 2 by 6 floor plan propped up with posts at a 45-degree angle. Braces spaced six inches apart give the frame structure, and Jesse coated the entire thing with chicken wire to keep big rocks from falling through.

We put our grizzly to work by propping it up and dropping shovelfuls of dirt and rocks onto it from an excavator (here’s what it’s like renting and running construction equipment). Larger rocks rolled to the bottom while dirt sifted through the cracks and formed a nice, neat pile below.

After a few shovelfuls, it was clear we needed to double up on the support, so we added extra braces to make it stronger.

While our grizzly isn’t as great at filtering as professional designs, it’s ideal for our needs. We don’t need a perfect pile of sand without any rocks at all, so this tool worked for us.

The soil ready to be filtered. This already had the large rocks removed with equipment.

At the end of the project, we had a pile of perfect backfill ready to be used, all created by our own self-sufficiency. Best of all, the grizzly was made from materials we already had on hand, and it will be easy to take apart if we want to use them for a different project.

Future Improvements for Our Homemade Grizzly

While we’re overall happy with this project, it’s always good to think about improvements for next time. For example, we now understand why grizzlies on the market are made from steel- our wooden frame really took a beating!

Below are some of our improvement ideas and suggestions for you if you want to make your own grizzly.

  • More Space: Because of the layout of our property, Jesse had a pretty tight space to work in, meaning that swinging the excavator around to access the grizzly wasn’t easy. Next time we’ll plan out our working space better.
  • Stronger Materials: A wood frame worked for our needs because we don’t need this grizzly forever, but it started to break down by the end of the work. We did a great job with the substantial metal bolts in the top frame of the grizzle, but it would have been better to not rely on wood screws for everything else, as they sheared off the wood. We also don’t recommend using chicken wire- it’s just not sturdy enough. Chain link fence would be much more effective.
  • Raised Platform: After a few loads from the excavator, rocks and dirt would cover the bottom of the grizzly and reduce its effectiveness as a strainer. This meant we had to tediously shake it off to get it working again. Raising the platform about two feet would have given the rocks and dirt somewhere to fall, which would have made it far more efficient to use.

Rock Filter Improvements Round One

As it’s now spring time and we’re back to work on our water project, we’ve already done a round of improvements on our giant soil sifter and have created numerous yards of usable, clean backfill! Check it out in this video!

Rock Filter Improvements Round Two

Bonus Tip: Simple Rock Sifter

Looking for a super simple way to sift out a small amount of soil without making a grizzly? You can use a milk crate! They’re sturdy enough to handle rock and will sift out soil in no time.

Simple and Within the Budget – Our Kind of Project

Our DIY grizzly isn’t going to win any design awards, but that’s not the point. What matters to us is that we managed to solve a problem using the tools we already owned and a little ingenuity.

Using our freshly-made backfill, free from rocks.

Who cares that it wasn’t perfect? Improvements can be made, but in the meantime, we’ve explored one more way to live out lives of self-sufficiency.

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I am an aspiring homesteader on a journey to become self-sustainable and free. In my past, I’ve worked corporate jobs to make ends meet and get ahead a little; it didn’t make me happy or confident in my future. Since taking the leap to self-employment and living a more simple life, my happiness levels have increased greatly and I’ve never felt more alive. I finally understand what I want in life and how to get there, and that is what this blog is all about.

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Ideas for Sifting Rocks Out Of Garden Soil

Article: Ideas For Sifting Rocks Out Of Garden

November 8, 2007

I need to get the rocks out of my garden. I’ve already made a rectangular “box”, open on top, heavy-duty wire mesh on the bottom, but lifting it to shake it hurts my back. I’m trying to create a way to put legs on it and shake it to filter out the dirt. I’m looking for examples, plans, etc.

Jo from Tacoma, WA


Rig Sanders To Vibrate

This might be a lot of hassle to go through, but if you got 2 electric sanders and fixed them onto a base upsidedown and attach your box to the “bottom” (now the top) of your 2 sanders, plug both of those into a multi plug and then ‘plug er in!’ Good luck, and if it doesn’t work, sorry! It’s just an idea of off the top of my head. Advertisement

By Christian Cathro

Technique For Great Dirt

Oh boy, I can relate! I have a wooden framed screen, just one big sheet with wooden supports under it. I lean it against the building or whatever and let a shovelful of dirt cascade down the front, where the dirt falls through into my wheelbarrow. The rocks land in a box that I empty regularly into a bucket and carry to wherever I need rocks. I use them for drainage, digging a posthole and filling it with rocks, under my flowerbeds and one corner of the lawn that was too swampy. I sort them and use them for paths too. One year I mixed rocks and potting soil on purpose to grow some comical crooked carrots for my godson. Neighbors are asking how I got such awesome dirt, and I tell them, I built it! By taking rocks out, then amending it to the proper balance (one-third sand, one-third clay, and one-third compost and vegetation matter, and you gotta remember that the compost goes away fast and needs to be topped up every winter). I love great dirt, it’s about the most satisfying thing about gardening. Advertisement

By Kim Churchman

Attach Wheels

Try wheels. Such as on a desk chair. They go every which way. Should help.

By Pearl

Old Wagon Wheels

How about something with wheels? Old wagon? cut bottom out and attach wire mesh reinforced?

Add Legs

You didn’t state the dimensions of your screen box; could you nail 2 legs to it and stand it on the ground (the ground would be one side of the triangle, and the screen and the legs the other 2 sides). Rest the front edge in a container for the rocks and the 2 legs in a container for the dirt. Shovel the dirt onto the screen; the rocks roll down the inclined screen into the rock container, and the dirt goes through the screen into the dirt container. Can you picture what I mean? Bet it would work!

By Nancy from Florida

Use Water

What’s wrong with using a hose to wash all the dirt through? I mean you’ll have a bit of a mess, but it’d dry into nice, clean dirt! Advertisement

By Beth

Teepee Structure And Other Ideas

I enlisted the help of my father-in-law on this one. He has collected rocks for years and has the same problem you do. Only he wants to keep the rocks, not the dirt. Maybe you two should work together! LOL! What he does is uses a teepee style stand. Maybe you have seen those stands that go over a campfire for cooking. It is a teepee with cords or wire coming down from the top. The end of the wires would be attached to the corners of your box so that your box is hanging in the air in the center of this teepee stand. You put in your dirt and shake the box without having to hold the weight of the box! Hope this helps. It seems it would be easy to build. Another idea is maybe you could recycle an old end table from a garage sale. Cut out the center of the table top and put in screen. I would think the legs would wear out pretty quick though. Hope this helps! Advertisement

By Jill

Build One To Fit Your Wheelbarrow

I made one years ago and I still use it. Mine is the same size as my wheelbarrel, I took 1 1/2″ X 1/2″ wood and a piece of screen I bought at the hardware store. The holes in the screen are less than a half inch square. Three of the holes equals one inch. You need four pieces of wood for the long sides and three for the shorter ends. I nailed the screen between the wood on three sides, and the last end I nailed to the screen and to both long sides but I only have the one piece of wood there. Now I put the sifter on top of the wheel barrel and with my shovel scoop the garden soil on it. About five scoops at a time, with my hands (in gloves) I run my fingers through the soil and large rocks I pick out but then I can shake the sifter and all the soil goes in the wheel barrel. I then dump out the rock (in a spare wheelbarrel) from the end of the sifter with one piece of wood. Then I dump the rock free soil back into my garden. I live in Yakima, WA. Advertisement

By Sandy

Post your ideas below!

Comment Pin it! Was this helpful? November 8, 20070 found this helpful

why not buy you large kitchen plastic strainer to use there each time and just shake it and dump each time.

Reply Was this helpful? By CArol in PA (Guest Post) November 13, 20070 found this helpful

I hand pick the big ones and leave the smaller ones. I feel they help keep the soil from becoming too compacted. I dont believe Ruth Stout, the famous gardener, would have done more than I do. She was the original Lasagna Gardener. (smile)

Best of luck

Reply Was this helpful?

Forum Archives

My husband and I have zero experience with gardening and would love some advice from those of you who know more… This is our first spring with a backyard. The previous owners took the backyard from a neglected pile of rubbish to something kind of decent. They put a nice brick walkway around the outside of the garden and put in a fence. But, in the middle of this walkway, there is a rectangle of dirt filled with rocks and glass shards and cigarette butts and other assorted goodies. We’d ideally like to see grass in this area – something very kid friendly.

We’ve spent 3 weekends trying top pick through the soil and clean it up, but it there just always seems to be more junk in it. At this point we feel like we need some way to just get rid of all the dirt and bring in fresh soil. Does this sound like the solution? If so, how do we actually go about doing it logistically? What do we use to dig it out, how do dispose of the junky soil, where do we get fresh soil, and how do we get that to the backyard?

Connect With Us!

by Heidi Strawn February 18, 2009

By Rick Gush

Photos by Rhoda Peacher

Materials List:

Quantity Item
2 8-foot 2x4s
1 piece 3/4-inch wire mesh (18×24)
30 U-shaped nails about 3/4-inch long
8 2 1/2-inch screws (Phillips head)


  • Circular saw
  • Jig saw
  • Electric drill with 1/8-inch or smaller drill bit, screwdriving head
  • Hammer
  • Nippers
  • Wood chisel
  • Clamps
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Pencil and tape measure
  • Safety goggles and ear plugs/muffs
  • Optional: sand-paper, masking tape, paint


This project is a great way to try out a few basic power tools and practice building your confidence along with building a soil sifter.

The soil sifter is a useful, multipurpose tool; from sifting compost to sifting rocks from soil to drying fruits and vegetables, you’ll find many uses for it around the farm.

This project is relatively simple, and a good one for beginning carpenters wanting to build their skills and confidence.

(Discover some various uses for a soil sifter>>)

Step One
Assemble all the tools and materials you’ll need.

This phase may include cutting the wire mesh to size if you can’t buy it in the exact dimensions on the materials list.

This step also includes determining the exact design you want.

If you want to change the measurements of the project from 36 to 24 inches, now is the time to do so, before you buy materials.

Step Two
You want to end up with two side pieces that measure 2 x 4 x 36 and two cross pieces measuring 2 x 4 x 18.

With a pencil, mark the wood for the straight cuts.

When joining pieces of wood to each other, square, flat surfaces allow the most powerful bond. If one or both of the surfaces to be joined is not flat, the resulting wobble will last forever.

Sloppy markings will result in sloppy cuts and the connection joints will not be as solid as they could be. “Measure twice, cut once” is the rule. Measuring three times is even better!

Step Three
Make the straight cuts with the circular saw. There are two types of straight cuts in the project:

  • The first cuts are short cuts to trim the cross pieces to the correct length.
  • The second cuts are those short and shallow cuts that will be used to create a notch in the main pieces where the cross pieces can nestle.

The second type of cut is a bit more complicated and requires setting the blade to a precise depth that matches the depth of the notch desired.

First cuts should be made at the edges of the notch; several more passes with the saw can remove more material, leaving only a few sections that will need to be removed with a chisel.

A project of this nature doesn’t really require the notches. If using the circular saw and chisel to make the notches isn’t something you want to do, go ahead and connect both cross pieces with simple butt connections. Note: Cut the cross pieces to 16 1/2 inches if you’re not using the notches.

When using the circular saw, use clamps to hold down the piece of wood to be cut and use two hands on the saw as it makes the cut.

Keeping both hands on the saw serves two purposes:

  • better guidance control and
  • the safety aspect of keeping both hands firmly attached to the saw.

Having a good mental image of the cut to be performed is essential. It’s always a good idea to take one more look at the saw itself to make sure the saw blade is the one you had intended to use, and that the saw angle and depth of cut are correct.

Step Four
Make the curve cuts.

To make the handles, mark one cut, use the jig saw to cut the curve and then use the leftover piece to mark the cut for the other three handles.

Pay attention here because it would be easy to cut a board with two handles that face opposite directions. Sand the handle area to smooth sharp edges.

Step Five
Assemble the wood frame. The four wood pieces are held together by eight screws. Using the electric drill, pre-drill the holes in the long pieces. Pilot holes not only make setting a screw much easier, but they also act to ensure that the screws go nicely into the center of the pieces. The screws here should be set as tightly as possible.

Step Six
Attach the wire mesh with the U-shaped nails. It’s a good idea to nail one corner, then another, and then a third before nailing all the sides. Too much quick nailing can result in a piece of mesh that sits crooked on the frame. Not every inch on the mesh needs to be nailed, but the screen should be nailed at least every four inches or so.

Step Seven
Optional: a paint job.

There’s something about a nicely painted tool that makes it more fun to use.

Tape the edges of the screen with wide masking tape and cover the remaining large areas, front and back with newspaper. Once everything is masked, the sifter can be painted with one coat of spray paint, perfectly in line with the casual nature of the project.

Using the Soil Sifter

Soil sifters have a variety of uses:

  • Sifting soil to remove rocks. In stony soil, removing rocks can be quite troublesome. A good soil sifter makes this job much easier.

  • Adding amendments. Mixing soil amendments such as peat moss and mature can be difficult with just a shovel, and the result is often amarbled-fudge effect of improperly mixed soil. A soil sifter does a great job of mixing soil and amendments.
  • Making potting soil. Make a nice potting soil rich in organic material and free from stones.
  • Storing fruit and vegetables. This structure can also be used as a well-aerated shelf for proper storing of fruits and vegetables.

  • Drying fruit and vegetables. A screen in a frame is an excellent device for sun drying fruits and vegetables. Place parboiled fruits or vegetables on the screen, then leave the screen in the sun when weather is hot and dry.
  • Making gravel. Sometimes a gardener needs a bit of gravel. Instead of buying a dump-truck load, use a soil sifter to produce a small bit of gravel quickly.

About the Author: Rick Gush is a small farmer and writer living in Italy.


Quickly Build a Rugged DIY Soil Sifter

Soil texture improves dramatically when you remove all the rocks and roots. I built a rugged soil sifter to clean my compost before putting it on the garden, and now I find myself using it all the time.

After building it, I did a quick search and didn’t see anyone online building one like this, both rugged, easy and affordable. For that reason I drew up a building plan that I’m offering to you for free.

The chickens do an amazing job making compost, but in my setup they also scratch surrounding debris (like wood chips) back into the piles as they get worked.

To fulfill my dream of sinking my hands in that loose, soft, fluffy compost I built a soil sifter.

My requirements were that:

  • I needed to build it quickly.
  • I wanted to use material I already had.
  • It had to be rugged.
  • It needed to be compatible with my wheelbarrow.

I’ll confess I did no research at all prior to building it. The idea bounced around in my head for a while and then the time came when I needed a sifter. So I built one.

Now I Use It All the Time

I’m surprised by how often I reach for the sifter now that I have one. The quality of the compost (and soil) is so much nicer after getting sifted, it just makes me want to keep sifting.

In addition to sifting compost for the garden and for friends, I planted about 30 perennials this spring and prepared all the sites by digging a hole and sifting all the rocks and roots out of the soil before dumping it back in the hole.

One tip I read from Stark Brothers nursery is that it’s best to use the native soil where you plant perennials. I follow that advice and top dress the planting with compost and mulch.

Then I Researched it

I love my sifter so much that I asked Google what other people are using for sifters. There are plenty of ideas out there, but in my research I didn’t find one that combined ruggedness and ease of building in the same package.

Mine is rugged because I sandwich the whole screen between dimensional lumber. It’s not just stapled in there or held on with a baton. This is important because the weight of a few shovels of dirt with rocks, coupled with the sifting motion is quite a load. It seems, looking at other designs, like the use would tear apart many other sifters.

Some of the more complex designs seem cool, but I don’t want to take a weekend to build a sifter. I’m willing to allocate about an hour so I can get back to doing the job for which I am building the sifter.

How To Build It

I used material I had in the barn, but a 10 foot 2×4, some half inch hardware cloth, a staple gun and a handful of 3 inch(ish) screws is all you need.

I cut each piece to length and then split them lengthwise on the tablesaw.

You could split it first and then cut them to length, whatever works best for you.

See the plans for details, but the frame rigidity comes from the offset corners coupled with the top and bottom being screwed together around the whole perimeter.

CAD drawing of the soil sifter used to generate the free plans

The screen rigidity comes from being sandwiched between the lumber around the whole perimeter of the screen, plus it’s held in by the screws that are used to connect the top and bottom frame.

I’ve run a lot of soil through here and there’s no sign she’s ready to give up the ghost.

How to Use a Soil Sifter

Check out my video to see it in action, but all you do is set the sifter down over the top of a wheelbarrow, shovel the dirt on top, and then shake your money maker to get the small stuff to fall through.

After you’re satisfied, dump the remaining big material off to the side, or wherever you want it, and start all over.

Earth’s Gym Baby!

Go Screen Some Dirt

When not in use I hang it up by a hook in one of the corners of the sifter.

I hope you enjoy this quick and easy plan.

Please share with like-minded people and send me a picture, or shoot me some feedback when you build one.


Homemade Soil Sifter

David Havard is a diabetic on dialysis, but hasn’t stopped him from gardening and more. David builds cool raised bed planters from (mostly) scrap wood and also created an ingenious soil sifter. So if you need to sift some dirt and you like home-boy DIY inventions, you’ll probably love this!

Contributor, David Havard

I started gardening two springs ago when I became disabled due to diabetes and classified as legally blind. Since I am not a person to sit around and mope, I decided to try my hand at gardening because I needed to find something to keep me out of trouble and from becoming depressed.

I had wanted to start a garden, but the soil in my back yard is terrible clay—like concrete —when it’s dry, and muddy when we get a couple days of rain. So I really didn’t want to try planting in or on top of the ground.

Research led me to a few planters made from pallets which looked like something I could handle. I ended up building 6 boxes of different sizes.

I planted tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and peas that spring, and in the fall I planted cabbages and everything did great. But when I went to remove the soil in my boxes I found acorns and pecans the squirrels had buried. Which meant that I would need to sift the soil before returning it to the beds.

Well, if you’ve ever sifted soil, you know that it takes a lot of time and shaking. I figured there had to be a better way, and that’s when I built my own version of a Motorized Soil Sifter. It worked great!

Then when spring rolled around again I wanted more boxes to plant more peas and bell peppers. So I built 7 more boxes. Now I have 13 boxes.

Sifting and reloading my boxes (also mixing in composted cow manure) was back breaking. Then in the middle of July I was diagnosed with fourth stage kidney disease, which progressed to fifth stage by Thanksgiving and I went on dialysis. So I had to make this easier. The idea of motorizing the sifter looked good so I again went online to get inspiration.

I saw a few videos showing a saws-all mounted to the sifter. So I took some 2 x 4’s, plywood, hose clamps, 1/4 in x 2 ft screen and a heavy duty saws-all and put it together in a weekend. I came with up my motorized garden soil sifter. And since I don’t drive, my girlfriend had to take me on the 20 trips to Lowe’s.

The top rails are 2 – 2X4’s 6 ft long, the side rails are 28 ¾ inches, with 4 – 2 x 4 legs 33 inches in height with braces in the corners. I then mounted a 28 ¾ by 28 inch piece of ½ inch plywood to one end with 2X4 blocks to the underside for support.

The sifter is 24 X 25 inches with ¼ inch hardware cloth stapled to the bottom. I mounted 4 small wheels to the sifter to make the movement smoother.

I mounted a 2X4 in the center of the plywood to hold the saws-all—which is placed upside down with blocks on both sides—and the end to keep it in place. I used hose clamps run through notches cut in the 2X4. And a hose clamp around the trigger to adjust the speed. I made a T-block with a 3 inch notch to put the blade into. I drilled a ¼ inch hole through the block and blade and secured it with a bolt, then mounted it to the sifter.

Now to try it out! So I loaded a wheelbarrow with soil from one of my boxes, turned it on and threw a couple of shovels full in and IT WORKS GREAT!!!

Not bad if I say so myself!

David Havard’s DIY Motorized Soil Sifter – Part 1

Here’s a quick update on David’s soil sifter. He needed to do some updates on the sifter due to a loose screw.

We admire David’s ingenuity and creativity that went into making his automated soil sifter. As we like to say:



“Gardeners are the sons and daughters of the Mother of Invention.”
~LeAura Alderson

David Havard, is a native and 48 year old resident of Pascagoula, Mississippi and has worked in grocery retail, security guarding, long haul truck driving, refrigeration/HVAC and as a rust machine operator. Diagnosed with diabetes at age 26, David’s health has steadily declined to the point of disability, including being on dialysis from kidney failure and classified as legally blind. However, these extreme challenges haven’t stopped David. In fact, they’ve spurred him on to become increasingly more productive, creative and inventive. David is hoping a kidney transplant is in his future. Until then he will continue to keep busy and industrious and help out his neighbors.

We are an online gardening publication sharing all things garden related! Including urban farming, family gardening, homesteading, gardening for profits, and more. We’re all about growth!

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Ryan Donnell I feel bad for my neighbor.

Brian’s the earth-biscuit type, with a flop of blond hair and a kayak rack on his Jeep that he actually uses. He’s a community-garden aficionado and a yard farmer who could talk compost for hours—mostly because there’s a massive heap of it in his backyard. Brian’s compost pile is the Everest of our neighborhood. It is robust of scent and full of twigs, old pineapple rinds, his Australian shepherd’s buried rawhide chews, and gigantic mounds of last year’s oak leaves. And buried deep inside is some of the best compost Mother Earth has ever cooked.

Amazing stuff, if you can get to it.

A few years ago Brian built a manual compost sifter, just a big screen within a frame, and he shook small batches of compost through it, separating the fine material from whatever hadn’t finished breaking down. He used the rich matter to top-dress his lawn, which improves moisture retention and soil structure, and to make his flower and veggie beds go nuts. He reduced the size of his compost mound and made room for the fall leaf drop in our neighborhood.

“When you just haul away your leaves, you’re losing that whole year’s worth of solar energy stored as carbon,” he says.

See? That’s how Brian talks. He’s committed to the organic and sustainable life. Problem is, Brian has a bad back. Hours of manually sifting heavy compost ran up his chiropractor bills.

Then Brian unearthed an old rock bed left behind by a previous owner and thought about how great those rocks would look on the other side of the yard—but first the bed would need to be sifted and cleaned. The very thought of putting it all through his manual sifter nearly put him in traction. So he hit the Internet to find a better solution.

Brian decided to build a motorized trommel, a rotating cylindrical screen that separates fine material from rough. It’s especially good at shaking out fine compost from a heap of rot and leaves.

Step One: The Cylinder

Ryan Donnell

When Brian first told me about this trommel project, he was so stoked about it that he got me excited too.

“I’ll be able to shovel in a few loads and sift out the good stuff, then put the rest back to keep cooking,” he said. “It’ll be great!”

But when I arrived at his house to check it out, he took me to a dark corner of his backyard.

You know how it goes. You start a project, then halfway through Saturday you’re surrounded by tools and a half-finished mess. Brian had watched hours of YouTube videos by guys who’d successfully built mechanical trommels before him—guys like Paul Miller of La Mesa, California.

He watched as Paul framed a basic cylinder with bike rims and screening, then mounted it on a wooden frame with smaller wheels turning the sieve within the rims. Atop the structure he mounted a motor. The whole thing sat at an angle, so when Paul shoveled rough material into the higher end, the cylinder dropped fine material below and dumped chunky debris into a wheelbarrow or hopper.Brian got to work on the cylinder first:

1. Use three 24- to 26-inch bicycle rims for the cylinder frame. Brian grabbed his from the local bicycle collective. When I interviewed him, Paul said a friend who fixes bikes donated his. You get the idea.

2. Remove spokes from the bike rims with wire cutters, which leaves you with three hoops.

3. Roll hardware cloth or chicken wire (sized according to the gauge of sifting you want to do) into the hoops to form a cylinder shape. Brian pop-riveted his into place but you can also wire it.

4. Choose a motor. Brian bought a ½-hp electric motor at a tool shop. Paul said he found his ¼-hp electric motor for $25 on Craigslist.

Brian got stumped because he wasn’t sure how to connect the motor to the trommel to get it to turn at a speed appropriate for sifting compost. How would he connect it to the cylinder?

He wasn’t sure. Other projects filled his workshop. The trommel took a back seat. Eventually, Brian moved the cylinder into the backyard, where he felt bad about it for two years. The compost pile grew and grew.

Step Two: The Power Source

Like I said, Brian’s green-living credo is pretty infectious. I wanted to help him finish his trommel, so I figured I’d start at the heart of the problem: the motor. Lucky for us, our other neighbor, John, is a mechanical engineer for a major international manufacturer.

“The goal here is not to slow down the motor but to control a properly sized energy source,” John says. The rotational speed of the trommel is critical for safety. About 20 or 25 rpm would be plenty. Plus, lowering the machine’s speed would increase its torque—the twisting force that creates rotation—allowing Brian to sift larger piles of compost.

A basic ½-hp electric motor spinning at 500 rpm is obviously too fast to couple directly to a trommel. Additionally, that same motor creates about 5 lb-ft of torque, which is not enough to do the job. To make the motor work, John says the easiest solution is to purchase a speed reducer. These affordable, mass-produced units are readily available from industrial distributors and many websites. Essentially a speed reducer is a gearbox.

“In addition to reducing the speed to a manageable level, it’ll increase the torque,” John says. “The neat thing about gears is that when you arrange them such that the output speed is reduced, the torque increases inversely.” For example, if you connect a 500-rpm motor to a speed reducer, and the output speed is now 25 rpm, or ½0 of the original speed, your torque now increases by a factor of 20.

“Your 5 lb-ft of torque is now 100 lb-ft at the gearbox,” he continues. Most motors can be readily adapted to a wide variety of speed reducers through standardized flanges and coupling.

“Industrial supply houses and motor distributors can help you put a nice little package together,” he says. “Ask an electrician to make sure your circuit is wired correctly to withstand the load from the motor.”

Alternatively, you can reduce the speed using a series of pulleys.

Parker Hubbard

Slowing Down a Trommel With Pulleys

Instead of using a speed reducer, Paul, the YouTube guy, rigged up a machine using the trommel’s center rim for speed control. “I used a 21-inch bike rim as a pulley wheel to step down the rpms of the motor,” he says. Other trommel builders use a 1,750-rpm motor with a 2-inch pulley (A) going to a 10-inch pulley (B), then a 2-inch pulley (C) going to the 25-inch trommel frame (D).

With that information you can easily calculate the output rpm with this incredibly simple equation:

Parker Hubbard

Step Three: The Frame

Illustrations by George Retseck

Once Brian figures out his motor system, he can build the frame. And then he can finish his trommel.

1. The size of the frame will depend on the size of your cylinder and the position of the wheels you use to turn the cylinder within it. Brian planned to mount his trommel on caster wheels from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, but you could also use small wheels with an axle from a home store.

2. Frames are best made from 2 x 4 material with a plywood top that’s sturdy enough to attach the motor to. (One YouTube builder made his motor mount adjustable for height because his pulley belts stretched out over time and he wanted to be able to tighten them.)

3. Screw the wheels directly to the frame to turn the cylinder. Paul Miller recommends just screwing the caster into the middle of a 2 x 4 and lining up the caster wheel with the middle of the bike rim, repeating on all four sides at each end. “There was no planning or measuring involved,” says Miller. “I just basically built a square around the rims.”

4. Extend frame legs to the ground or attach wheels to the base to make a more mobile unit.

5. Here’s where you can customize. Some of the YouTube builders added a piece of sheet metal as a guard on one side of the trommel so it doesn’t fling dirt and debris all over the yard. Some builders crafted different drums for different purposes—smaller screens for composting, larger screening for rock jobs. Others made the trommel contraption high enough that it could be directly positioned over raised garden beds to reduce the amount of shoveling required.

6. Position the trommel at a slight downward angle so, as it turns, discarded debris falls away. Use a wheelbarrow or similar hopper to catch the debris coming out the end of the trommel.

7. Enjoy, as Brian says, “a revitalized and amazing living soil structure with highly organic material!”

Trommel Safety Is Mostly Common Sense

• Operate a motor-driven trommel from a circuit with a ground-fault circuit interrupter.

• Cover the machine; store it out of the weather.

• Build the machine with a large, accessible on/off switch. Don’t rely on unplugging it to disconnect it.

• Don’t allow kids to play with it.

• Shield belts and pulleys to keep loose clothing and hair from being entangled.

• Don’t wear loose clothing, and tie back hair when operating it.

How to Make a Soil Sifter

Learn how to make a soil sifter that takes the weight off your back with these plans for a wheeled sifting box in a frame.

March 2015
By Chris Peterson and Philip Schmidt

Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency (Cold Springs Press, 2014), by Chris Peterson and Philip Schmidt, shows you exactly how to build dozens of projects for a self-sufficient lifestyle, with beautiful photos and complete plans for each. Four categories—Food Prep & Preservation, Homestead, Garden and Animals—cover a broad range of popular projects, often with a creative touch or two to make them easier to build or more efficient to use.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency.


Sifting your soil is an excellent way to refine the foundation of your garden. The basic idea is to sift the soil through a screen much as you would sift ingredients for baking. Sifting “cleans” the soil, removing large organic objects such as rocks and debris like broken glass. The process improves the texture of the soil, loosening it to allow for better water and air penetration. It can also remove old weed rhizomes—root systems that could grow new colonies of weeds. The benefits include improved drainage and moisture retention so that your plants’ roots are more likely to get the water they need without becoming waterlogged or rotting.

You can take the opportunity of sifting your soil to blend in amendments such as compost, manure, or other nutritional additions. It’s a great way to create a premium top soil that will get your garden off to a great start—and keep it growing strong throughout the season.

Sifting soil can be done with nothing more than a sturdy, thick mesh screen held by the edges. But if your garden is like most, you’ll be faced with sifting quite a bit of soil and a simple hand-held screen will be quite laborious to use. That’s why the design of the sifter described in the pages that follow is a bit more sophisticated. It uses a sifting box equipped with wheels, and this box sits in a frame. You sift the soil by rolling the box back and forth within the frame, saving a lot of energy, effort, and sore backs. If you want to make the rig even handier and easier to store, add handles to both the sifting box and frame.

The sifting frame has been sized to fit perfectly over a standard wheelbarrow. But if you are using another container to catch the sifted soil, or if your wheelbarrow is a different size, adjust the measurements to suit. This could even be used over an empty garbage can or barrel. Once you’ve constructed the sifter, sift soil for your whole garden, container plants, or anywhere you want clean, effective top soil. Your plants will thank you.


Tools and Materials

Cutting List

Make the Soil Sifter

1. Drill pilot holes through the frame guides and into the 1 x 3 frame stiles. Screw the guides to the stile with 1-1/4-inch wood screws, ensuring that the guides are aligned along one edge of each stile. These guides will serve as tracks for the soil-sifting box.


2. Join the frame rails to the stiles with a metal angle at each corner.

3. Screw the sifting box ends to the box sides with 2-1/2-inch deck screws. Cut the screen 1/4-inch less than the size of the box. Screw it to one side with washer head screws, then stretch it tightly and screw it to the opposite side. Use at least 4 screws per side.

4. Screw the casters to the back and front ends of each box side so that the wheels face toward the ends.

Sifting soil is largely a lost craft in the garden, but one that can go far toward improving your soil and making your plants grow as healthy as possible.

More DIY Plans from Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency:

• DIY Compost Bin Plans
• Multi-Purpose Garden Trellis Plans

Reprinted with permission from Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency: DIY Projects to Get Your Self-Reliant Lifestyle Started by Chris Peterson and Philip Schmidt and published by Cool Springs Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Practical Projects for Self-Sufficiency.

If you are a treasure-hunter or into collecting artifacts like shark’s teeth, and you haven’t tried using a sifter yet, there are easy steps on how to build it. You have the option to just go to the store and buy a sifter box that is ready for use, but it would be nice if you build it yourself. It will not cost you that much, anyway.

Things you need:

  • Knife
  • Wire cutter
  • Wire storage drawer/basket
  • ¼ inch galvanized wire mesh
  • 4-inch cable ties
  • 17-inch cable ties
  • Swimming pool noodle
  • A rope adjusted to your height


  1. Cut the galvanized mesh that fits the size of your storage drawer. There should be some overlap on every side of the sifter to prevent the fossils from falling.
  2. Sit the basket in the middle of the mesh. Cut the wire from its corners up to the corner of the basket.
  3. ​Fold the edges towards the middle of the wire mesh. Make sure to fold any protruding triangles inwards as well.
  4. ​You should now have a piece, which you can put at the bottom of your basket.
  5. ​Unfold your mesh at the bottom of the storage basket. You have to be careful, as the edges of the mesh are very sharp.
  6. ​Once all the edges are already unfolded, fasten the wire mesh into the basket using the 4-inch cable ties.
  7. ​Cut the pool noodle into 4 pieces matching the edges of your basket.
  8. ​Fasten the noodle pieces at the top half of your basket. It should be above the mesh, yet under the lip of the basket. All sides should have one piece of noodle attached. Add more cable ties to make it tighter. This will prevent the noodles from falling off.
  9. Attach your rope to the corners of your sifter box.

Finished! Now that is a helpful tool that you can use in your fossil hunting.

You can also watch this video, which shows how to build the sifter box:

Aside from sifting artifacts, you can also use a sifter box for your garden. If you are an avid gardener, you should know that the soil sifter is one of the most essential tools for gardening. It is used to separate and remove trash, rocks and plant debris from the soil.

Cleaning the soil is one of the best ways to refine the foundation and maintain the beauty of a garden. When the large particles are gone, the soil becomes loose resulting in better air and water penetration.

This helps the seeds to germinate well and your mature plants to grow even healthier. You can just buy a sifter at a store, but building is always more fun than buying.

How to make a sifter box for sifting soil

If you are going to construct your own sifter, keep in mind that it does not have to be creatively made. However, it should be sturdy enough to carry a shovelful of dirt, which needs to be sifted.

Tools and materials you need:

  • Circular or hand saw
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Pliers
  • Mesh wire screen (2 x 5 feet)
  • 2 x 3 wood (8 feet long)
  • 8 screws (2-½ inch)
  • A box of U-shaped nails/staples


  1. Using a circular or handsaw, cut the wood into 4 equal parts. Each part should be 2 feet long.
  2. Decide which pieces of wood should make the inner and the outer sides of the sifter. Drill pilot holes accordingly.
  3. Attach the frame together using the hammer.
  4. Cut the mesh wire screen to be of the right size for your frame. It should be long enough to bend outside the frame. Be careful, as the wires are sharp when trimmed.
  5. Attach the mesh screen to the frame with the U-shaped nails using the hammer. Don’t forget to bend under the edges of the mesh to prevent scratching your hand.

Well done on building your very own soil sifter! This will surely do a good job and aid you in your gardening.


Soil Sifter Tool: How To Make A Soil Sieve For Compost

Whether you are developing a new garden bed or working the soil in an old one, you often come across unexpected debris making digging difficult. Rocks, cement pieces, sticks, and plastic somehow get into the soil and lodge there.

If you leave the debris, your new plants will have a hard time pushing their way to the soil surface when they germinate. That’s where a soil sifter tool comes in handy. What is a soil sifter?

Read on for information about using soil sifters including tips on how to make one yourself.

What is a Soil Sifter?

If your experience with sifting is limited to flour, you probably need to read up on soil sifter tools. These are garden tools that help remove debris from soil and also break down lumps in compost to make it easier to spread.

You’ll find both electric and manual soil sifters in commerce. Professional landscapers use electric models and you can too, if you don’t mind spending the money. However, the basic model, a box for sifting soil, will usually accomplish what you need as a homeowner. This consists of a wooden frame around a wire mesh screen. It’s pretty easy to use this type of sifter. You simply pile soil on the screen and work it through. The debris remains on top.

You can also think of soil sifters as compost sifter screens. The same screen you use to remove rocks from soil can also serve to break down or take out lumps of uncompacted material in compost. Many gardeners prefer their compost screens to have smaller wire mesh than soil sifters have. You can buy screens with different sizes of mesh or you can make your own tools.

How to Make a Soil Sieve

If you are wondering how to make a soil sieve or compost screen yourself, it’s pretty easy. The first step is to figure out what dimensions you want the box for sifting soil to be. If you plan to use the sieve on the wheelbarrow, use the dimensions of the wheelbarrow tub.

Next, cut wood pieces to construct two identical frames. Paint them if you’d like to preserve the wood. Then cut the wire mesh to the size of the frames. Fasten it between the two frames like a sandwich and attach it with screws.

DIY Compost Sifter Screen, Wheelbarrow Style

  • Photo/Illustration: Greg Holdsworth (All photos)
  • Photo A
  • Photo B
  • Photo C
  • Photo D
  • Photo E
  • Photo F
  • Photo G
  • Photo H
  • Photo I
  • The finished product… ready for compost!

Whether it’s your special seed-starting mix or your pile-produced compost, having the material free of twigs, stones and other debris will make your garden bed preparation easier.

Most sifter screens require you to hold them up as you shake them back and forth in order to sift the material. This is an effective way to sift compost, but it has one big physical flaw – it can put a strain on your wrists, arms and back in a hurry.

This sifter design rests on a wheelbarrow and puts less strain on your back and arms. The sifter consists of two parts: a frame that straddles most wheelbarrows (length-wise or sideways), and a tray with the metal screen on the bottom. The tray sits inside the frame.

To use the sifter, you load the tray with 1-3 inches or so of compost, soil, etc. You then quickly slide it back and forth on the frame, allowing the finer sifted material to fall into the wheelbarrow. The leftover material still in the tray can be thrown back into the compost pile or disposed of. You can use whatever type of wood suits your fancy.

The list of things you’ll need:

• 6 feet of 1″x1″ lumber
• 10 feet of 1″x2″ lumber
• 5 feet of 1″x4″ lumber
• 16 feet of 2″x4″ lumber
• 14-16 1-1/2″ wood or deck screws
• 8-12 2″ wood or deck screws
• 8-12 3-1/2” wood or deck screws
• 1 24″x36″ piece of hardware cloth (galvanized metal screen), either 1/2″ or 1/4″ mesh
• Metal staples
• 2 Metal handles
• Wood glue
• Candle
• Paint, stain, varnish, or water sealer (optional)

• Saw, jig or circular
• Drill and drill bits
• Staple gun
• Tin snips or other metal cutters
• Sandpaper

Skill Level:


Frame Construction:

1. Cut two 36″ long pieces from the 2″x4″ lumber.

2. Cut two 27″ long pieces from the 1″x4″ lumber.

3. Cut two 36″ long pieces from the 1″x1″ lumber.

4. Screw the two 1″x4″ cross pieces to the bottom of the 2″x4″ (pre-drilling will help prevent splitting) (Photo A).

5. Glue the two 1″x1″ pieces to the inside of the two 2″x4″ pieces, where the four pieces meet at each corner (Photo B).

The frame should be 24″ wide measuring from inside to inside, just above the 1″x1″s, so that the screened tray can ride on top of the 1″x1″s (Photo C).

Tray Construction:

1. Screw the tray’s 2″x4″ side and end pieces together using 3 1/2-inch screws (Photo D).

2. Cut the hardware cloth screen to match the width and length of the 2″x4″s that were screwed together, but not right to the edge. Secure it to the bottom of the 2″x4″s with metal staples (Photo E). You only need to put in enough staples to hold it in position tightly.

3. Screw the 1″x2″s to the tray’s bottom (Photo F).

4. Attach/screw a handle to each end (Photo G).

The tray should be 24″ wide, outside to outside, to fit on top of the 1″x1″s of the frame (Photo H).


• Sand the wood surfaces and seal with stain, water sealer, paint, etc. if you desire.

• Rub a candle on the bottom of the tray and the tops of the frame 1″x1″s so the tray slides easily (Photo I).

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