How to Make a Dirt Sifter

After putting up the post on making raised beds I realized I should probably go a little more in-depth on the dirt sifter since it’s a vital part of my gardening routine.  If your dirt is in need of as much amendment as mine you’ll be doing a fair amount of sifting too.  If not, well lucky you.

My sifter was scrapped together in an afternoon.  Even though it’s not real easy on the eye it functions quite well.  I’ve put thousands of pounds of dirt through it and it’s still holding up.

The Base

Sifter Base

The base holds up the tray for sifting.  It needs to be sturdy but also easy to carry around.  I used my favorite building materials for this project- stuff I had lying around and drywall screws.  I used angle aluminum in the corners as posts because it is nice and rigid as well as lightweight.  2x2s would work just fine.  The plywood on the horizontal pieces needs to be fairly wide to help with bracing.  In the corners of each of the posts I put 3″ deck screws to loop the cord from the tray over.  You only need them on one side but this way is more versatile.

Sifter base corner detail

The Tray

The tray is were all the action happens.  The tray needs to be light.  You are going to be lifting the tray on and off the base over and over again.  It also needs to be sturdy.  The tray gets filled with heavy rocks and dirt and then gets shaken dozens of times until every thing that’s going through has done so.  Your construction needs to hold up to the abuse.

Tray with dimensions

The tray sides are made out of 1x4s screwed together with metal angle brackets in the corners.  The screen is 2 layers of hardware cloth one with 1/2″ holes and one with 1/4″ holes.    The 1/2″ cloth is to provide support to help hold the weight of the dirt.

Tray bottom

After you have screwed the sides together place the tray face down and lay the hardware cloth on it.  Take some strips of 1.5″ wide x 3/4″ thick wood (or plywood) and screw them into the bottom of the tray.  Make sure the screws go through the holes of the screen.

Handle detail

The handles are 16″ pieces of 2×2.  I used an angle grinder with a sanding disk to shape them so that they would fit comfortably in my hand.  Use 3″ screws to attach them to the bottom of the tray.  I had them screwed in the sides for the first year but eventually they failed and ripped out chunks of wood from the sides of the tray.

Rope attachment

Drill a 1/2″ hole about 3″ in from the end to slip the cord through.  I like to use reinforced clothesline.  It holds up the best.  I also wrap the ends in tape to make an eyelet.  This helps with wear as well as keeping the cord secure on the corner posts.

Corner detail

The cord is just tied in a circle with the ends poked through the holes in the tray.  Set the length so that the tray sits about two inches above the base crossbar.  This way it won’t bang into it while you are sifting.

Sifter assembled

The handles should rest on the crossbar on the other end.  They keep the tray stable as you are filling it.

Using It


Using the sifter is very straightforward.  You fill it with as much material as you can comfortably shake.  Push and pull the tray in front of you and the sifted dirt will fall through leaving the big stuff behind.


You’ll be amazed at how nice your dirt looks after a trip through the sifter.  Your plants will thank you too!


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  1. Mike's Mom
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Very clever!  Thanks for showing us readers the results of your trial-and-error process;  the result is simple but very effective.

  2. Sue
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Very nice!! I was just today needing to sift dirt. My daughter begged to climb up on the porch roof to rake/sweep down years of leaves and such that accumulated! And what came down was amazing mulch and dirt and branches and other. So — off to sift it. Wow! A wheelbarrow full of dirt that has NOT been ‘catted’!! Yay!

    Speaking of which – have you all ever done anything with dirt that needed to be cleaned? My entire yard is a cat box (so it seems…sounds like an exaggeration…but it’s not).  So now I’m trying to find out if there is any possible way of cleaning the dirt! It’s a shame to think of all this dirt just not being usable — but certainly am not keen on the idea of eating ‘cat biscuits’ within my veggies, ya know? So trials-n-errors in the high desert of Oregon, too! ;^D

    Thanks for all your sharing, Mike.n.Molly!


    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I’m in the camp that everything composts.  If you think about it if poop didn’t biodegrade we would all have to have been looking for a new planet a loooong time ago.  I’ve read that two years in the compost pile is enough to break anything down.  We compost the leftovers of our meat chickens and there isn’t much of anything left after 2 years.  

      • Char
        Posted July 11, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        Agree! we compost pretty much everything.

  3. Sandyl
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    I made one of these, but it doesn’t have the handy dandy handles. Works great for sorting my compost.

    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I really like the handles.  Even though they are far from fine craftsmanship they fit nicely in my hand and make me happy when I use them.  How’s the chicken house coming?

  4. Frannie
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I have access to used bread trays (the ones they carry bread into stores with), they work great. I have thought about writing a paper on the many garden uses of these plastic trays.

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