The Basic Mix:

A general teacher's guide for concrete preparation

The physical properties of density and strength of concrete are determined, in part, by the proportions of the three key ingredients, water, cement, and aggregate. You have your choice of proportioning ingredients by volume or by weight. Proportioning by volume is less accurate, however due to the time constraints of a class time period this may be the preferred method.

A basic mixture of mortar can be made using the volume proportions of 1 water : 2 cement : 3 sand. Most of the student activities can be conducted using this basic mixture. Another "old rule of thumb" for mixing concrete is 1 cement : 2 sand : 3 gravel by volume. Mix the dry ingredients and slowly add water until the concrete is workable. This mixture may need to be modified depending on the aggregate used to provide a concrete of the right workability. The mix should not be too stiff or too sloppy. It is difficult to form good test specimens if it is too stiff. If it is too sloppy, water may separate (bleed) from the mixture.

Remember that water is the key ingredient. Too much water results in weak concrete. Too little water results in a concrete that is unworkable.


  1. If predetermined quantities are used, the method used to make concrete is to dry blend solids and then slowly add water (with admixtures, if used).
  2. It is usual to dissolve admixtures in the mix water before adding it to the concrete. Superplasticizer is an exception.
  3. Forms can be made from many materials. Cylindrical forms can be plastic or paper tubes, pipe insulation, cups, etc. The concrete needs to be easily removed from the forms. Pipe insulation from a hardware store was used for lab trials. This foam-like material was easy to work with and is reusable with the addition of tape. The bottom of the forms can be taped, corked, set on glass plates, etc. Small plastic weighing trays or Dairy Queen banana split dishes can be used as forms for boats or canoes.
  4. If compression tests are done, it may be of interest to spread universal indicator over the broken face and note any color changes from inside to outside. You may see a yellowish surface due to carbonation from CO2 in the atmosphere. The inside may be blue due to calcium hydroxide.
  5. To answer the proverbial question, "Is this right?" a slump test may be performed. A slump test involves filling an inverted, bottomless cone with the concrete mixture. A Styrofoam or paper cup with the bottom removed makes a good bottomless cone. Make sure to pack the concrete several times while filling the cone. Carefully remove the cone by lifting it straight upward. Place the cone beside the pile of concrete. The pile should be about 1/2 to 3/4 the height of the cone for a concrete mixture with good workability. (SEE DIAGRAM)

  6. To strengthen samples and to promote hydration, soak concrete in water (after it is set).
  7. Wet sand may carry considerable water, so the amount of mix water should be reduced to compensate.
  8. Air bubbles in the molds will become weak points during strength tests. They can be eliminated by:
  9. Special chemicals called "water reducing agents" are used to improve workability at low water to cement ratios and thus produce higher strengths. Most ready-mix companies use these chemicals, which are known commercially as superplasticizers. They will probably be willing to give you some at no charge.
  10. You can buy a bag of cement from your local hardware store. A bag contains 94 lb. (40kg) of cement. Once the bag has been opened, place it inside a garbage bag (or two) that is well sealed from air. This will keep the cement fresh during the semester. An open bag will pick up moisture and the resulting concrete may be weaker. Once cement develops lumps, it must be discarded. The ready mix company in your area may give you cement free of charge in a plastic pail.

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