Sunday, May 23, 2010

Make This Handy Little Compost Sifter

Step - by - Step Building Instructions
for your own Compost Sifter

Several years ago when I was still very green behind the ears, I decided to learn how to make my own soil mixes for seed starting, potting soil and raised bed gardening. I soon found out that if I was to use composted leaves, kitchen greens, commercial top soil and bagged manure to make my own mixes; I would need an easy, quick, and light way to sift a few gallons of materials at a time. Actually, a few other items would be useful but I will get into this later. So I designed a sifter very simular to the one above but a little bigger. I was younger then. This is suitable for the elderly to use and is made out of better materials. You will see the old one that I finally retired after 20 plus years of use and why I had to retire it. The screen was Still in excellent shape and I cleaned it up, sized it down a little and reused it on the new screen. This screen is made or Galvanized Steel and I had given it a good enamel coat of paint the first time. Most of the paint was still in good shape. I just washed and buffed the screen a little before repainting with a new coat of enamel. I use almost one regular can of enamel spray to finish this job. I like Teal. You can use any color you want!

Lets Get Started

Material List: 

1 - 6 ft Cedar Fence Board (5-1/2" X 72") Usually "Dog Eared" on one end. (You will find it at your local lumber yard or Building Materials store such as Lowes or Home Depot etc). 

1 - 1 ft. X 2 ft.  Galvanized 1/4" inch hole Screen.  Big City Folks call it "Hardware Cloth", I've been told.  Most Hardware stores and Building Materials Stores Carry it. Here in  Kansas -  it's simply "Hail Screen".
For finer sifting, 1/8" Screen can usually be found. Larger Course (and quicker) sifting you might want 1/2" Screen. This is sometimes used by small contractors to sift large rocks out of builders sand etc. 

1 - Wooden Screen Trim. (Once used to hold fly screen material on old-fashioned Wooden Window Screens and Screen Doors.) Now often used as a trim board for wood projects. It's about 3/16 thick, 3/4" wide and 8 ft. long. Found at many Hardware Stores, Lumber Yards and Builder's Supplies Stores such as Home Depot and Lowes.

Other Materials you will need:
A Waterproof Wood Glue. I use TiteBond III. You may also find at your Hardware Store or Builders Supply Store- Elmers Waterproof Wood Glue and Gorilla Glue and others that will also work. Read the label carefully and make sure it clearly says "Waterproof".

About 20 - 3/4 inch Copper Screen Nails - Found where you found the Window Screen Nails. Sometimes found in Winterizing Window Kits that contain plastic sheets and nails. There are found in Hardware Stores, Dollar Stores, Builders Supply Stores etc. Small 1" #4 Galvanized Nails also work fine if you can find them. 
These are used to attach the slats to the frame of the Compost Screener sandwiching the galvanized screen between.

1 - Can of Enamel Spray Paint - Your favorite Color. Found at any Hardware, Builders Supply, WalMart, Dollar Store, Target etc in the Hardware/Tool Department.

A Sheet of #60, 80, or 100 Grit Sandpaper. To smooth rough edges after filing and to smooth the face sides of all  Side pieces.

Tools You Will Need:

A - 1"  "Spade Bit" or "Hole Saw" Bit. (Not necessary if you settle for  square holed Handles. See below.)

A - A Saber Saw with a fine-toothed wood cutting blade. An old-fashioned "Coping Saw" can be used but    is pretty tedious for cutting out handles on the Compost Screener. Believe me "Electric is better"!

A - Small Wood Rasp. Curved one side - Flat on the other. 8" Rasp is fine and should only cost a few dollars.

A -  Square.  . Found in the Hardware or Building Materials Stores. If you can't find one, a "square" piece of paper or cardstock will help you to draw and cut a square cut. Table Saws usually provide their own sliding T -square to hold the board and make a square cut across the board. 

A - Small Tape Measure or Ruler to measure and draw straight lines. 

A - Table Saw.  If you are not acquanted with this tool, now is not the time to learn. Have an experienced friend or neighbor "rip" the sides for your Sifter. Or Use the Saber Saw but don't expect the line to be perfect unless you can clamp on a guide bar (Straight Edge) for your Saber Saw to follow and make perfect line cuts.
A course wood blade can make a fairly fast cut if you are "ripping" with a Saber Saw. "Ripping" means to cut in the direction of the wood grain - Usually along the length of the boards.
However, Saber Saws can also give you a nasty cut. Be careful at all times to be sure you don't have a finger or leg near the moving blade. 

Stock Pieces are preliminary cuts of pieces from your larger boards to get the parts close to size. Always starting with the largest pieces first and working down to the smaller pieces. This assures you that you have enough wood to cut all the pieces that you need and in such a fashion as to leave you with the least waste.This is a good practice to follow with any wood project. All your Stock Pieces will be cut from the Cedar Fence Board.

The Photo below shows the cuts on the board using a red marker for visibility. I have left a 1/8 inch space between each cut. There is plenty of board so you may cut further down on the board. This is a stock cut. Not the Finish cut. That's why the lengths are a little longer if the board you are cutting from allows for it. You will take these stock pieces and later cut them to exact length and width needed.

1. Make a nice square cut across the full end Fence Board. Use a  square to check that you are making a clean square cut across the board. 
2. Cut 2 - 18 inch boards one after the other.

3. Cut 2 - 12 inch boards one after the other.

Cut 4 Finished Pieces From Stock Pieces

Now we will take the Stock Pieces (4 sides pieces) and cut the down to the exact finished size.
We will not only be cutting to exact length, we will be "ripping the boards to the exact widths

1. Rip the 2 Sides to 4" inches wide.

2. Rip the 2 End pieces to 5" wide.

3.  Cut the 2 Sides to be exactly 16" long.

4. Cut the 2 Ends to be exactly 10" long.

Preparing the Ends for Handles

We will now position and draw out the Handle on each End Piece. 

1. Find the middle of the End Pieces and draw a line to show the center of the board. Draw down about 2-1/2". Here is where the  Square will come in handy. Your End Boards should look something like this.

2. From the Center measure out 2" from the center line on each side. Again, using your  square, draw a 2-1/2" vertical line from the top down at these 2 points on both boards. Your End Boards should now look like this:

Notice that the Centering Line runs all the way across the board and here is designated "C L" or "Center Line".   A 2-1/2" line is shown on both sides of the line.              

3. Again, Measure down on the 2 side lines 1" on both boards. . Make a dot on each line. Draw a horizontal line connecting the dots.   This is the Solid Black Lined in the Picture.

4. On those same vertical lines, measure down from the top - 2 inches. Make another dot on each vertical line.  Again draw a horizontal line between the dots.


5.   Measure down on the two side lines 1-1/2 inches. Make a dot. Draw a third line parallel with the other two top and bottom lines connecting the 2 dots just drawn.

6  You should now have a rectangular box centered on the End Pieces. Located 1" from the top of both end boards, looking like this:

7. If you are willing to settle for a rectangular hole for a handle, all you need to do now skip #8 and cut out the hole (box with black lines)  with your Saber Saw or Coping Saw. 

 For a more pleasing look and more comfortable fitting handle. Go on to step #8.

8. From each end of the handle - using the center horizontal line - measure in 1/2 inch and make a dot. This is the exact center point to set your  1" spade bit or hole saw bit. Drilling at this point should give you handle ends with nice half circles when your finished cutting out the complete handle.   First, check the NOTE below!                  

When cutting out the circles, always cut from both sides of the board to avoid jagged "break-outs" caused from sawing from one side only. The center point of the blade coming through on the other side, is your guide. Just turn the board over and insert the blade in this hole.Cut until a "plug" Falls out from the center of the 1" holes you have just made.  Your board should look like this:


9. Where the top of the hole meets the horizontal line across the handle, saw to the other hole top.
 Likewise cut the bottom horizontal line.

To Finish up the ends, measure along the top from each end, 3". Make a small mark. Measure down from the top on each end, 1". Make a small mark. Draw a line connecting the dots on both ends.

Cut the Angled Ends off of the End Pieces  with your Saber Saw.     Your 2 Ends should now look like this:

Clean-Up Work on Sides and Ends.

1.  Using the wood rasp with the finest cut, smooth  and round off  the top edges of the ends. Do the Handles the same. Do not rasp the ends of the End Pieces. 

2. Using the Sandpaper, smooth all edges and faces of the 4 side pieces. Do not round off the ends or the corners of your assemble Compost Sifter will have weird indentions instead of nice square edges when your done..

Glue and Nail the Sides Together to Make a Bottomless Box
For Best Results, put 3 nails into each end of each Side Piece. See Photo.

 Nail so that the point just pierces the wood on the other side. This will allow you to set the two pieces together more accurately later. Apply the Glue and Nail the Bottomless Box Together. It should look like this when you are finished assembling the box frame:

Attaching the Bottom Screening

1. Trim the Screen to exactly fit the bottom. Trim about 1/16 of an inch all around the screen so that no wire sticks past the edges to cause you scratches later on.


2. Trim 2 screen slats to fit the length of the sides (16"). Set 3 Copper Nails into the slots. One at each end and about 1" in from the end and one near the center.

3. Apply Wood Glue to the bottom of the strip. Make sure screen is properly aligned and not sticking over anywhere. Nail the strips down upon the sides and securing the sides of the screen.

4. Cut a screen slat for each end to fit between the Side slats just installed. They  shouldn't fit too snug to avoid warping. On the other hand, do not leave any wide cracks at the joints. Put in 3 copper nails as you did with the Side Strips and apply glue throughly to the back side (side to the screen and End Boards. Nail Down. Your Compost Sifter is almost done.

 The Finishing Touch

Apply at least 2 coats of paint. For a smoother finish, allow the two coats to dry throughly, sand lightly with 125 to 200 Grit Sandpaper. Wipe of the dust throughly, and give 2 more light coats of paint. Since this Compost Sifter is made of Cedar; it should last twice as long as my old sifter. Mine was made of Common Pine.

Additional Handy Garden Items to Have

A Small Wheelbarrow. Although it's time to repaint it, my little wheelbarrow has lasted me for several years and  is perfect for sifting and mixing small amounts of potting soil etc. 


I lay my Compost Sifter in the wheelbarrow. Pour the ingrediants into the Sifter, and sift everything into the wheelbarrow. If you have several ingredients to sift and mix; just lay the sifter on top of the pile as it grows and add the new sifted ingredient to the total contents of the Wheelbarrow.

This small wheelbarrow can still be found at most Ace Hardware Stores. I got mine several years ago at Westlake Ace Hardware located at 3110 E Douglas - Wichita Kansas. It costs about $35. 

A Galvanized Animal Feed Pan. These are about 14 inches in Diameter and about 4 inches Deep. Used to feed and water Small Livestock  like Goats and Sheep or as a Chicken Smorgasboard for several chickens - and Big Dogs with a healthy appetites!. 

The Galvanized coating is a little thin. But even if you eventually get a few tiny rust holes,  it's still good for mixing  and holding a reasonable amount of potting soil. And it will be usable for several years.  It's especially handy because it is not deep which makes for easy mixing with a Garden Trowel. It's easy to hold with one hand, and mix with the other. A great appliance for the price!. Locally about $4.69.

I found mine at Atwoods of Derby, Kansas. These should also be available at most "Feed and Seed" stores and some hardware stores.  

A Good Garden Trowel. The wide ones work best for mixing. True Value Hardware Stores have very good ones. Make sure they are solid steel. Forget the Variety Store,  Fancy Garden Trowels. They Look very sturdy but they fall apart at the handles almost immediately after you use them. Don't waste your money.

The price for a Good Trowel starts at about $7 New. Sometimes you can find these kind of Garden Trowels at Garage Sales for a buck or 2. Keep an eye out!

This concludes this article. I hope you get a lot of use out of your new Compost Sifter.

If you have found this article useful,  Please let me know so that I can continue to bring informative and useful articles to you.  Leave a comment. or just post me at I answer all letters. I'm not a big shot - just a little shot. Every reader is important and appreciated by me. Letters are Most appreciated!


Copyright Robert Mader 2010
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