wikiHow to Grade a Site by Hand

Any residential building site can be graded by hand. The advantages lie in having no destruction from heavy equipment, being able to work around an existing structure, and best of all, it's free! It may take a few days, instead of a few hours . . . but there's something rewarding about doing work for oneself quietly by hand without spending a cent - it is truly "building green".


  1. Image titled Grade a Site by Hand Step 1
    Choose your grade. There are three ways to go here. Either cut straight back into the hillside, and use retaining walls behind the structure to hold the earth back. Or put retaining walls around the lower side of the site, and build up with fill. You will be ordering at least a truckload of dirt here (not that costly, under a $100), and once it's in, it will need a month or so to properly settle. Usually heavy rains will do the trick. The last option is to split the difference - choose a final grade midway between the low and high elevation of the slope. You will need a lot of retaining wall here, both around the low side of the structure, as well as behind it to hold back where you cut out. But with this option you will not be paying for dirt nor waiting for it to settle, and only digging half as much back into the slope.
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    Rig up some shade, if there is an existing structure. Grading is hard work and it's easy to get overheated. A tarp of this size will need nailed down or heavy objects laid across the top to keep it from flying off in the wind. Merely tying it down along the edges will cause the grommets to rip out.
  3. Image titled Grade a Site by Hand Step 3
    Remove the sod. The key low-tech tool here is the spading fork. It's like a mini-pitchfork (about $15). Lunge at the root-base of the sod, pry around, and yank. Heap all the sod up into a wheelbarrow, and cart it off to any barren spot on your land. Even if the sod doesn't establish itself (it will need heavy watering in the beginning to do so), it will at least help rebuild the soil.
  4. Image titled Grade a Site by Hand Step 4
    Use a laser level and stakes (if there are no existing posts) to pinpoint your exact grade throughout the site. Mark where the final grade will be with masking tape.
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    Start cutting out the back. Use a heavy-duty pick/mattock - the heaviest pick you can comfortably swing down with from above your head. Use the mattock end to break up the soil. At the end of your stroke you can pull the dirt towards you and up out of where you're digging. There's a lot of technique to swinging a pick. With the right stroke you can 'pop' quite a large hunk of soil loose. Any rocks you encounter can be used in your foundation. Try swinging the pick from the side and other motions to use different muscle groups.
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    Move the loose dirt over to the low side.
    Shovel the dirt into a wheelbarrow and dump and tamp it using a hand tamper ($20). If you're simply trying to build the grade on the low side, not much tamping is necessary. A good heavy rain will settle your fill. Final tamping will be done after the grade is level and raked out.
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    Build the retaining wall if there's fill within the structure to hold back. The retaining wall can double as a stem wall.
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    Rake out the grade and tamp.
    Lay boards across your grade with a 4' to 6' level to get everything smooth and even. The tamping is not that critical if the site will be exposed to the weather for a while. All the hand-tamping in the world will not compare to the settling effect you will get after several rains.
  9. Image titled Grade a Site by Hand Step 9
    Here is the final grade, after the driveway was begun:

Things You'll Need

  • Pick/Mattock
  • Spading Fork
  • Shovel (half-length snub-nose)
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Work Gloves
  • Laser Level
  • Hand Tamper
  • 6' Level

Article Info

Categories: Landscaping and Outdoor Building | Sustainable Living