Estimating Soil Texture:
Sand, Silt or Clayey?
- Sand, silt, and clay
- Soil texture triangle
- Identifying soil texture by measurement
- Identifying soil texture by feel
Note: For additional information on managing soils refer to CMG GardenNotes #213, Managing Soil Tilth.
Texture refers to the size of the particles that make up the soil. The terms sand, silt, and clay refer to relative sizes of the soil particles. Sand, being the larger size of particles, feels gritty. Silt, being moderate in size, has a smooth or floury texture. Clay, being the smaller size of particles, feels sticky. [Table 1 and Figure 1]
Table 1. The Size of Sand, Silt and Clay Name Particle Diameter Clay below 0.002 millimeters
Silt 0.002 to 0.05 millimeters Very fine sand
Very coarse sand
0.05 to 0.10 millimeters
0.10 to 0.25 millimeters
0.25 to 0.5 millimeters
0.5 to 1.0 millimeters
1.0 to 2.0 millimeters
Gravel 2.0 to 75.0 millimeters Rock greater than 75.0 millimeters (~2")
Figure 1. Comparative size of sands, silt and clay. If clay was the size of a dot on the page, silt and sands would be a comparative size.
The soil texture triangle gives names associated with various combinations of sand, silt and clay. A coarse-textured or sandy soil is one comprised primarily of medium to coarse size sand particles. A fine-textured or clayey soil is one dominated by tiny clay particles. Due to the strong physical properties of clay, a soil with only 20% clay particles behaves as sticky, gummy clayey soil. The term loam refers to a soil with a combination of sand, silt, and clay sized particles. For example, a soil with 30% clay, 50% sand, and 20% silt is called a sandy clay loam. [Figure 2]
- Spread soil on a newspaper to dry. Remove all rocks, trash, roots, etc. Crush lumps and clods.
- Finely pulverize the soil.
- Fill a tall, slender jar (like a quart canning jar) one-quarter full of soil.
- Add water until the just is three-quarters full
- Add a teaspoon of non-foaming dishwasher detergent.
- Put on a tight fitting lid and shake hard for 10 to 15 minutes. This shaking breaks apart the soil aggregates and separates the soil into individual mineral particles.
- Set the jar where it will not be disturbed for 2-3 days.
- Soil particles will settle out according to size. After 1 minute, mark on the jar the depth of the sand.
- After 2 hours, mark on the jar the depth of the silt.
- When the water clears mark on the jar the clay level. This typically takes 1 to 3 days, but some soils may take weeks.
- Measure the thickness of the sand, silt, and clay layers.
- Thickness of sand deposit ____
- Thickness of silt deposit ____
- Thickness of clay deposit ____
- Thickness of total deposit ____
12. Calculate the percentage of sand, silt, and clay.
- [clay thickness] / total thickness] = ___ percent clay
- [silt thickness] / total thickness] = ___ percent clay
- [sand thickness] / [total thickness] = ___ percent sand
13. Turn to the soil texture triangle and look up the soil texture class.
Figure 3. Measuring Soil Texture
Feel test – Rub some moist soil between fingers.
- Sand feels gritty.
- Silt feels smooth.
- Clays feel sticky.
Ball squeeze test – Squeeze a moistened ball of soil in the hand.
- Coarse texture soils (sand or loamy sands) break with slight pressure.
- Medium texture soils (sandy loams and silt loams) stay together but change shape easily.
- Fine textured soils (clayey or clayey loam) resist breaking.
Ribbon test – Squeeze a moistened ball of soil out between thumb and fingers.
- Ribbons less than 1”
- Feels gritty = coarse texture (sandy) soil
- Not gritty feeling = medium texture soil high in silt
- Ribbons 1-2”
- Feels gritty = medium texture soil
- Not gritty feeling = fine texture soil
- Ribbons greater than 2” = fine texture (clayey) soil
Note: A soil with as little as 20% clay will behave as a clayey soil. A soil needs 45% to over 60% medium to coarse sand to behave as a sandy soil. In a soil with 20% clay and 80% sand, the soil will behave as a clayey soil.
Figure 4. Soil texture by feel flow chart
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Revised October 2014, Reviewed December 2015
Updated Wednesday, January 13, 2016 by Mary Small