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Sieve Analysis and Particle Analysis of Size & Passing


Sieve Test, particle analysis, grain size analysis or particle sizing

The grain size characteristics of soils that are predominantly coarse grained are evaluated by a sieve analysis. A nest of sieves is prepared by stacking test sieves one above the other with the largest opening at the top followed by sieves of successively smaller openings and a catch pan at the bottom. Opening mesh sizes of commonly used sieves are shown in table below.

Procedure of particle size analysis:

A sample of dry soil is poured onto the top sieve, the nest is covered, and it is then shaken by hand or mechanical sieve shaker until each particle has dropped to a sieve with openings too small to pass, and the particle is retained. The cumulative weight of all material larger than each sieve size is determined and divided by the total sample weight to obtain the percent retained for that sieve size, and this value is subtracted from 100% to obtain the percent passing that sieve size.

Results are displayed by plotting the percent passing (on a linear scale) against the sieve opening size (on a log scale) and connecting the plotted points with a smooth curve referred to as a grain-size distribution curve.

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Particle size passing the sieves:

Related Pages

Sieve AnalysisThe notation Dxx refers to the size D, in mm, for which xx percent of the sample by weight passes a sieve mesh with an opening equal to D. The D10 size, sometimes called the effective grain size, is the grain diameter for which 10% of the sample (by weight) is finer.

It is determined from the grain size distribution curve at the point where the curve crosses a horizontal line through the 10% passing value on the y axis. Other D sizes are found in a similar manner. The D50 size, called the median grain size, is the grain diameter for which half the sample (by weight) is smaller and half is larger. Two parameters are used to describe the general shape of the grain-size distribution curve.

Sieve Standards


Sieve No.








Inches seives










Graph of sand sieve analysis to determine effective size and uniformity coefficient
Click the image to Enlarge

Sieve Analysis Graph



Classification of soil
Soil Mechanics Books

There are two soil classification systems in common use for engineering purposes. The Unified Soil Classification System is used for virtually all geotechnical engineering work except highway and road construction, where the AASHTO soil classification system is used. Both systems use the results of grain size analysis and determinations of Atterberg limits to determine soil’s classification. Soil components may be described as gravel, sand, silt, or clay. A soil comprising one or more of these components is given a descriptive name and a designation consisting of letters or letters and numbers which depend on the relative proportions of the components and the plasticity characteristics of the soil.

1. MIT System of soil classification:





Cobbles or Boulders

2. AASHTO classifications of soils:

The AASHTO system classifies soils into seven primary groups, named A-1 through A-7, based on their relative expected quality for road embankments, sub-grades, sub-bases, and bases. Some of the groups are in turn divided into subgroups, such as A-1-a and A-1-b. Furthermore, a Group Index may be calculated to quantify a soil’s expected performance within a group. To determine a soil’s classification in the AASHTO system, one first determines the relative proportions of gravel, coarse sand, fine sand, and silt-clay.


AASHTO Classification Chart

General Classification Granular Materials (35% or less passing the 0.075 mm sieve) Silt-Clay Materials (>35% passing the 0.075 mm sieve)
Group Classification A-1 A-3 A-2 A-4 A-5 A-6 A-7
A-1-a A-1-b A-2-4 A-2-5 A-2-6 A-2-7 A-7-5 A-7-6
Sieve Analysis, % passing
2.00 mm (No. 10) 50 max
0.425 (No. 40) 30 max 50 max 51 min
0.075 (No. 200) 15 max 25 max 10 max 35 max 35 max 35 max 35 max 36 min 36 min 36 min 36 min
Characteristics of fraction passing 0.425 mm (No. 40)
Liquid Limit 40 max 41 min 40 max 41 min 40 max 41 min 40 max 41 min
Plasticity Index 6 max N.P. 10 max 10 max 11 min 11 min 10 max 10 max 11 min 11 min
Usual types of significant constituent materials stone fragments, gravel and sand fine sand silty or clayey gravel and sand silty soils clayey soils
General rating as a sub grade excellent to good fair to poor

Note: Plasticity index of A-7-5 subgroup is equal to or less than the LL - 30. Plasticity index of A-7-6 subgroup is greater than LL - 30

In the AASHTO system:

Secondly, if any fines are present, Atterberg limits are determined and the plasticity index is calculated. A soil is a granular material if less than 35% of the soil by weight passes the No. 200 sieve (#200). Granular materials are classified into groups A-1 through A-3. Soils having more than 35% passing the No. 200 sieve are silt-clay and fall in groups A-4 through A-7. Having the proportions of the components and the plasticity data, one enters one of the two alternatives AASHTO classification tables and checks from left to right until a classification is found for which the soil meets the criteria. It should be noted that, in this scheme, group A-3 is checked before A-2. Soils classified as A-1 are typically well-graded mixtures of gravel, coarse sand, and fine sand. Soils in subgroup A-1-a contain more gravel whereas those in A-1-b contain more sand.

Soils in group A-3 are typically fine sands that may contain small amounts of non-plastic silt. Group A-2 contains a wide variety of “borderline” granular materials that do not meet the criteria for groups A-1 or A-3. Soils in group A-4 are silty soils, whereas those in group A-5 are high-plasticity elastic silt. Soils in group A-6 are typically lean clays, and those in group A-7 are typically highly plastic clays. Within groups containing fines, one may calculate a group index to further evaluate relative quality and supporting value of a material as sub-grade. The group index is calculated according to the following empirical formula:

Group index F 35 – ( )0.2 0.005 LL 40 – ( ) + [ ] + 0.01 F 15 – ( )PI 10 – ( )

3. Unified soil classification system (USCS):

The Unified Soil Classification System is based on the airfield classification system developed by Casa Grande during World War II. With some modification it was jointly adopted by several U.S. government agencies in 1952. Additional refinements were made and it is currently standardized as ASTM D 2487-93. It is used in the U.S. and much of the world for geotechnical work other than roads and highways. In the unified system soils are designated by a two-letter symbol: the first identifies the primary component of the soil, and the second describes its grain size or plasticity characteristics. For example, poorly graded sand is designated SP and low plasticity clay is CL. Five first-letter symbols are used:

G for gravel
S for sand
M for silt
C for clay
O for organic soil

Clean sands and gravels (having less than 5% passing the No. 200 sieve) are given a second letter P if poorly graded or W if well graded. Sands and gravels with more than 12% by weight passing the No. 200 sieve are given a second letter M if the fines are silty or C if fines are clayey. Sands and gravels having between 5 and 12% are given dual classifications such as SP-SM. Silts, clays, and organic soils are given the second letter H or L to designate high or low plasticity. The specific rules for classification are summarized as follows and described in detail in ASTM D 2487.

  1. Organic soils are distinguished by a dark-brown to black color, an organic odor, and visible fibrous matter.
  2. For soils that are not notably organic the first step in classification is to consider the percentage passing the No. 200 sieve.
  3. If less than 50% of the soil passes the No. 200 sieve, the soil is coarse grained, and the first letter will be G or S;
  4. if more than 50% passes the No. 200 sieve, the soil is fine grained and the first letter will be M or C.

For coarse-grained soils, the proportions of sand and gravel in the coarse fraction (not the total sample) determine the first letter of the classification symbol. The coarse fraction is that portion of the total sample retained on a No. 200 sieve. If more than half of the coarse fraction is gravel (retained on the No. 4 sieve), the soil is gravel and the first letter symbol is G. If more than half of the coarse fraction is sand, the soil is sand and the first letter symbol is S. For sands and gravels the second letter of the classification is based on gradation for clean sands and gravels and plasticity of the fines for sands and gravels with fines.

For clean sands (less than 5% passing the No. 200 sieve), the classification is well-graded sand (SW) if C ≥ 6 and 1 £ Cc £ 3. Both of these criteria must be met for the soil to be SW, otherwise the classification is poorly graded sand (SP). Clean gravels (less than 5% passing the No. 200 sieve) are classified as well-graded gravel (GW) if Cu ≥ 4 and 1 £ Cc £ 3. If both criteria are not met, the soil is poorly graded gravel (GP). For sands and gravels where more than 12% of the total sample passes the No. 200 sieve, the soil is a clayey sand (SC), clayey gravel (GC), silty sand (SM), or silty gravel (GM).

The second letter is assigned based on whether the fines classify as clay (C) or silt (M) as described for fine-grained soils below. For sands and gravels having between 5 and 12% of the total sample passing the No. 200 sieve, both the gradation and plasticity characteristics must be evaluated and the soil is given a dual classification such as SP-SM, SP-SC, GW-GC, etc. The first symbol is always based on gradation, whereas the second is always based on plasticity. For fine-grained soils and organic soils, classification in the unified system is based on Atterberg limits determined by the fraction passing the No. 40 sieve. The liquid limit and plasticity index are determined and plotted on the plasticity chart. The vertical line at LL = 50 separates high-plasticity soils from low-plasticity soils. The A-line separates clay from silt. The equation of the A-line is

PI = 0.73 (LL – 20)

The U-line is not used in classification but is an upper boundary of expected results for natural soils. Values plotting above the U-line should be checked for errors. Inorganic soils with liquid limits below 50 that plot above the A-line and have PI values greater than 7 are lean clays and are designated CL; those with liquid limits above 50 that plot above the A-line are fat clays and are designated CH. Inorganic soils with liquid limits below 50 that plot below the A-line are silt and are designated ML; those with liquid limits above 50 that plot below the A-line are elastic silts and are designated MH.

The plasticity chart has a shaded area; soils that plot in this area (above the A-line with PI values between 4 and 7) are silty clay and are given the dual symbol CL-ML. If the soil under consideration is the fines component of a dually classified sand or gravel, the soil is classified as SM-SC or GM-GC. Soils with sufficient organic contents to influence properties that have liquid limits below 50 are classified as OL; those with liquid limits above 50 are classified as OH. Soils that are predominantly organic, with visible vegetable tissue, are termed peat and given the designation Pt.

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