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5) Soil Classification

Prepared From The Coduto’s Text Book

Instr. Nurullah AKBULUT

Chinese legends record a classification of soils

according to color and structure which was made
by the engineer Yu during the reign of Emperor
Yao, about 4000 years ago.
This is the earliest known soil classification system
(Thorp, 1936)
 Classificationsystems have been
developed, usually based on the
grain-size distribution and the
Atterberg limits. They often are
supplemented by non-standardized
classifications of other properties,
such as consistency and
 Arthur Casagrande developed a new engineering soil
classification system for the United States Army during World
War II (Casagrande, 1948). Since then, it has been updated
and is now standardized in ASTM D2487 as

 The Unified Soil Classification System (USCS).

 Unlike the other systems, the USCS is not limited to any

particular kind of project; it is an all-purpose system and has
become the most common soil classification system among
geotechnical engineers.

 In its original form, the classification consisted only of a two- or

four-letter group symbol. Later, the system was MODIFIED by
the addition of several group names for each group symbol.
 For example, a typical USCS classification would be:
 SM — Silty sand with gravel
 where "SM" is the group symbol and "Silty sand with gravel"
is the group name.

 The position of a soil type in the group name indicates it

relative importance, as follows:
 Noun = Primary component

 Adjective = Secondary component (or further explanation of

primary component)
 "with ..." = Tertiary component

 For example, a clayey sand with gravel has sand as the most
important component, clay as the second most important, and
gravel as the third most important. If very little of a soil type is
present, then it is not included in the group name at all. For
example, a clayey sand is similar to the soil just described,
except it has less than 15 percent gravel.
Initial Classification
To use the Unified Soil Classification System, begin with an initial classification
as follows:

1) Determine if the soil is highly organic: Such soils: have organic material,
dark brown dark gray, or black color, Organic odor especially when wet, and
soft consistency, have fibrous material (remnants of stems, leaves, roots,

If the soil does not have these characteristics (and the vast majority do not),
then go to Step 2. However, if it does, then classify it as follows:
Group symbol Pt
Group name Peat

This completes the unified classification for highly organic soils. These soils are
very problematic because of their high compressibility and low strength, so
the group symbol Pt on a boring log is a red flag to geotechnical engineers.

2) Conduct a sieve analysis to determine the grain-size distribution curve. For

an informal classification, a grain-size distribution curve based on a visual
inspection may suffice.
3) Based on the grain-size distribution curve, determine the percent by
weight passing the 3-inch, #4, and #200 sieves, then compute the
percentage by weight of gravel,sand, and fines using the definitions in
ASTM Particle Size Classification

4) If 100 % of the sample passes the 3-inch sieve, go to Step 5. If not,

base the classification on the part that passes this sieve (usually called
the "minus 3-inch fraction"). To do so, adjust the percentages of
gravel, sand, and fines using a procedure similar to that in Example
5.1. Then, perform the classification based on these modified
percentages, and note the percentage of cobbles and/or boulders and
the maximum particle size with the final classification. For example, if
20 percent of the soil is cobbles, some as large as 8 inches, the USCS
classification (after going through the rest of the procedure) might be:
SW - Well-graded sand with gravel and 20% cobbles, max 8 inches

5) If 5 % or more of the soil passes the #200 sieve, then conduct

Atterberg limits tests to determine the liquid and plastic limits.

6) If the soil is fine-grained (i.e., 50 % passes the #200 sieve),

follow the directions for fine-grained soils.
If the soil is coarse-grained (i.e., < 50 percent passes the #200
sieve), follow the directions for coarse-grained soils.


Classification of Fine-Grained Soils
 Fine-grained soils are those that have at least 50 %
passing the #200 sieve. Thus, these soils are
primarily silt and/or clay.

 Casagrande developed the plasticity chart in for the

classification of Fine-grained soils. This chart uses
the Atterberg limits to distinguish between clays and

 Although most fine-grained soils contain both clay

and silt, and possibly sand and gravel as well, those
that plot above the A-line are classified as clays,
while those below this line are silts.
Figure 5.3 Plasticity chart (ASTM D2487). The "A-line" separates silts from clays, while
the "U-line" represents the upper limit of recorded test results. Data that plot above
the U-line are probably in error. Note how the vertical axis is the plasticity index, not
the plastic limit. Soils identified as "non-plastic" (NP) are classified as ML
We use the plasticity chart to determine the group symbol for fine-
grained soils.

It usually consists of two letters, which are interpreted as follows:

First Letter
M Predominantly silt - C Predominantly clay-O Organic

Second Letter
L Low plasticity - H High plasticity

CL soils are known as lean clays, while CH soils are fat clays.

The corresponding terms for ML and MH soils are silt and elastic
silt, respectively, even though the stress-strain behavior of MH
soils is no more elastic than any other soil.

If the liquid limit after oven drying is less

than 75 percent of the original value, then
the soil is considered to be organic. If not,
then it is inorganic.

 The natural soils along a proposed highway

alignment have a grain-size distribution as
described by curve A in Figure 5.2, a liquid limit
of 44, and a plastic limit of 21. Classify the
inorganic soil using Unified Classification
Figure 5.2 Grain-size distribution curves.
Initial classification

100% passes 3-inch sieve, so no adjustments are necessary

50% passes #200 sieve, so the soil is fine-grained

Classification of fine-grained soil

Soil is inorganic, so use Figure 5.4
Liquid limit = 44. Plastic limit =21. Plasticity Index=23

Liquid limit < 50, Above A Line, PI=23 therefore, Plots as CL (Lean Clay)

For Modified Classification:

<70% passes #200

% sand = #4-#200 = 97% - 54% = 43%
% gravel = 3-in-#4 = 100% - 97% = 3%
% sand > % gravel
< 15% gravel
Group name = Sandy lean clay
Final result: CL — Sandy lean clay Answer
Classification of Coarse-Grained Soils
 Coarse-grained soils are those that have less than 50
percent passing the #200 sieve. Thus these soils are
primarily sand and/or gravel.

The group symbols for coarse-grained soils are:

First Letter
S: Predominantly sand – G: Predominantly gravel

Second Letter
P: Poorly graded – W: Well graded
M: Silty – C: Clayey
 Poorly graded soils are those with a narrow
range of particle sizes (i.e., a steep grain-size
distribution curve)

 Well-graded soils have a wide range of particle

sizes (i.e.. a flatter grain-size distribution

 In this context, silty (M) or clayey (C) indicate a

large percentage of silt or clay in a coarse-
grained soil.
 To classify coarse-grained soils, use the flow chart in
Figure 5.6. By inspection of this chart, we see that both
sands and gravels are divided into three categories
depending on the percentage of fines (fines = percent
passing the #200 sieve):

If < 5 percent fines: Use two-letter group symbol to

describe gradation. (well or poorly graded) (GW, GP,

If 5 - 12 percent fines: Use four-letter group symbol to

describe both gradation and type of fines. (GW-GM, GW

If > 12 percent fines: Use two-letter group symbol to

describe type of fines (silt or clay) (GM, GC, GC-GM, SM
The inorganic soil C in Figure 5.2 has a liquid limit
of 30 and a plastic limit of 25. Determine its unified
soil classification.

Figure 5.2 Grain-size distribution curves.

Initial classification
100% passes 3-in sieve, so no adjustments are necessary
< 50% passes #200 sieve, so soil is coarse-grained

Classification of coarse-grained soils

% gravel = 3-in-#4 = 100% - 100% = 0%
% sand = #4-#200 = 100% - 4% = 96%
% fines = #200 = 4%
D30= 0.17 mm
D60= 0.40 mm

Using Figure 5.6

% sand > % gravel
< 5% fines
Cu < 6 and Cc < 1, so group symbol is SP
< 15% gravel
Final results: SP — Poorly-graded sand Answer
The inorganic soil C in Figure 5.2 has a liquid limit of 30
and a plastic limit of 25. Determine its unified soil

Figure 5.2 Grain-size distribution curves.

Initial classification
100% passes 3-in sieve, so no adjustments are necessary
< 50% passes #200 sieve, so soil is coarse-grained

Classification of coarse-grained soils

% gravel = 3-in-#4 = 100% - 80% = 20%
% sand = #4-#200 = 80% - 10% = 70%
% fines = #200= 10%
D10= 0.075 mm
D30 = 0.39 mm
D60= 1.7 mm
CU= D60 / D10 = 23
Cc = 1.2

Using Figure 5.6

% sand > % gravel
5-12% fines
Cu > 6 and 1<= Cc <= 3 (therefore soil is well graded)
IP = 30 - 25 = 5
Fines plot as ML on Figure 5.3, so group symbol is SW-SM (Well-graded sand with silt)

Modified Classification: >15% gravel

Final result: SW-SM — Well-graded sand with silt and gravel Answer
Classification of Borderline Soils

 Sometimes a soil classification is very close

to the dividing line between two different
group symbols. In such cases, it is
acceptable to use both symbols in the
classification, with the "correct" symbol
first, followed by the "almost correct"

 For example, a sand-clay combination with

slightly less than 50 percent fines could be
identified as SC/CL.
Soil Assessment Based on USCS Classification
 Geotechnical engineers have many ways to assess the
suitability of a soil for particular purposes.

 For example, if a soil is being considered for use as an

"impervious" cap over a sanitary landfill, we would perform
hydraulic conductivity tests to determine how easily water flows
through it. Soils that restrict the flow of water are best for
landfill caps. However, before we perform these specialized
tests, geotechnical engineers assess a soil based on its

 For example, a SW soil would pass water very easily, and thus
would be rejected for the landfill cap even without a hydraulic
conductivity test.

 Table 5.2 presents general soil properties based on the unified

group symbol, and may be used to assist in such assessments.
Although geotechnical engineers routinely perform sieve, hydrometer, and Atterberg
limits tests, it is not cost-effective to do so on every sample obtained from the field,
so the remaining samples must be classified without the benefit of laboratory test
data. The following methods can assist in this process:

• The #200 sieve approximately corresponds to the smallest particles one can see with
the unaided eye. Thus, individual fine sand particles can be distinguished, but
individual silt particles cannot. In addition, particles larger than the #200 sieve have
a gritty texture, while those smaller are pastey.

• Clay and silt particles often clump together, and may look like sand. These clumps
will dissolve when wetted. Therefore, when in doubt, be sure to wet the soil before
classifying it.

• Clays (CL and CH) have a higher dry strength, but lose this strength when wetted.In
addition, moist clays can be rolled between the fingers into 5-mm diameter threads.

• Silts (ML and MH) have a lower dry strength, and are much more difficult to roll
into threads.

• Cementing agents, such as calcium carbonate, are sometimes present in sandy or

silty soils. These agents can give the soil a high dry strength, even if no clay is
present. Again, the key is to wet the sample before classifying it. Cemented soils will
retain their dry strength, while clayey soils will soften when wetted.

Standardized soil classification systems are very valuable tools

that help geotechnical engineers identify soils and make
preliminary assessments of their engineering behavior.
However they also have limitations. Casagrande (1948) said:

“It is not possible to classify all soils into a relatively small number
of groups such that the relation of each soil to the many
divergent problems of applied soil mechanics will be adequately

 Therefore, do not expect too much from a soil classification

system. Identifying the proper classification is a good start, but
we still need to use other test results, an understanding of soil
behavior, engineering judgment, and experience.
1) Standardized soil classification systems are an
important part of the language of geotechnical
engineering. They help us identify soils and
communicate important characteristics to other
engineers. In addition, a classification helps us
develop preliminary assessments of a soil's behavior.

2) The Unified Soil Classification System is an all-

purpose system based on grain size and Atterberg
limits data.

3) Supplemental soil classifications assist in further

describing important characteristics not addressed
by classification systems.