My back yard once had a large empty pit of sand, stone and grass that was left over from a previous owner’s above ground pool. It was the perfect place for a swingset, but once my kids got older I had to find a way to remove all the stones from the 15 foot circle so that I could cover it with topsoil and grow some grass. The most difficult task of this project was removing the stone from the dirt. To do this I needed to have some way to collect the stone and leave the dirt. I essentially needed a quick and easy way to sift out the stones and leave the sand and soil. A commercial sifter was way too expensive, so I decided to make my own stone sifter using an old wheel barrow, some left over 2x4s and a roll of 1/4 inch garden screen I had picked up just for the job.
Building the Soil Sifter
Using a reciprocating saw I cut two 24″ sections 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 mostly because it was about as big as I could make the rectangle and still be able to put a single section of steel screen over it. The roll was 24″ wide, so it worked out well. Then I measured and cut out a section of screen from the roll and just had to figure out some way to attach the screen to the square. Obviously you can choose a different type of screen for smaller or larger particles or stones.
Now I fully admit that I had to attach the screen several different times before I came across a method that works well. At first I simply took the staple gun and put construction staples into the screen edge of the screen every inch or so. That worked at first, but then I accidentally ran my shovel right through the screen, leaving a big gash in it.
“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just take this piece of screen off and put on a new one!”
It took me almost an hour to sit down with a flat head screwdriver and pry out each staple so I could take off the old screen. My next bright idea was to simply use wood screws with washers around the edges of the screen. Unfortunately this didn’t work very well at all and just resulted in the screen basically ripping around each of the screws.
As they say the third time’s the charm, and that was true in this case. I realized I needed some sort of clamping pressure around the edges of the screen to keep it from pulling way, so I ended up getting some cheap steel reinforcing deck plates and screwed them around the edges of the sifter. 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.
Lesson learned: don’t try to attach the screen to your sifter with screws or staples. Instead, use metal plates that cover a lot of area and keep your screen secure.
Sifting 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 it 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 a sifter filled with 10 pounds of sand, dirt and stones on my own.
Adding Wheels to your Stone Sifter
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!
A quick addition of wheels made my sifter mobile! All I needed now was something 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
For the past two weeks I’ve been steadily (but slowly) working around the ugly stone ring in my backyard. The general process goes something like this:
- I dig out four or five shovels full of dirt and stone and deposit them into the sifter.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Only after I spent all this time and energy did I see that others have had a similar idea about sifting dirt. 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.