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Simple field tests to determine soil properties


After you have learned this element you should be able to:
- carry out three different preliminary tests to roughly determine the nature of the soil;
- carry out two tests to determine the proportions of the coarse and fine particles in a sample and one test to roughly determine
the quantity of silt and clay present in the finest fraction;
- describe how fractions of soil are classified according to grain sizes;
- carry out two tests to determine whether a fine-grained soil contains mainly clay or silt.
It is possible to say a lot about a soil by only looking at it and touching it. Before any other tests are carried out the following
preliminary identification should be made:
- Grain sizes. Is the soil mainly coarse or fine? Try to separate the coarse particles from the fine ones and roughly estimate which
percentages are coarse/fine. Press the big particles between your fingers to find out if they consist of many small particles bound
together (e.g. hard lumps of clay).
- Organic material. Does the soil contain many fibres or small roots? Does it look dull or dirty? When the soil smells earthy or of
plants, it is likely to be organic. This odour will become more distinct when the sample is heated.
- Silt/clay or sand/gravel. Dry soils which contain a large percentage of sand/gravel feel coarse and gritty, while dry clay feels hard
and smooth. Dry silt feels floury and will disintegrate into a fine powder when rubbed. When wet, sand/gravel will not stick to the
fingers; while wet clays and silts feel sticky and will stain the fingers.
Since the particle sizes determine to a great extent the properties of a particular soil, the first tests we will discuss deal with this
aspect. Particles are classified according to their size into fractions (gravels, sands, clays, or silt).
Table 1 shows the sizes and basic characteristics of these fractions.
Table 1
Fraction Grain size
Shape Cohesion Plasticity Permeability Consolidation Volume
Effect in a soil mixture
Max. Min.
Stones 60 2 Various None None High Little None Contributes to stability
and strength
coarse 2.0 0.6 Angular Apparent None High to Slight Slight Contributes to
medium 0.6 0.2 and when damp medium strength and
fine 0.2 0.06 rounded stability
Silt 0.06 0.002 Angular and
Very slight Slight to
Medium to
Slight Medium Contributes to instability
especially when vibrated
or wet
Clay 0.001 0.005 Plates,
Considerable High Low High Considerable Contributes to strength by
cohesion, but to instability
due to plastic movement
under pressure