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Measurement of shear strength

We carry out shear box tests on a soil with different normal stresses. We than draw a
graph of shear stress at failure against normal stress (Figure 2).


Shear box test

Shear stress at
failure f (kPa)

In this lecture we will learn about the shear box test, which is a direct method of
measuring the shear strength of a soil in the laboratory. The typical measurements
taken during a shear box test tell us a lot about the behaviour of different soils in

Possible cohesion
intercept c (kPa)

Friction angle
(strength) of soil

Normal effective
stress (kPa)

Figure 2: Shear strength of soil determined from shear box test

In the last lecture you learned that soils fail in shear and that we measure this
strength as a friction angle . This is because soil strength comes from the friction
between the soil particles.

The shear strength of the soil () in the shear box is simply the angle under the
graph as shown in Figure 2. It is usual to calculate the angle from the slope of the
graph rather than to measure it, since

The shear box measures the shear strength of a soil in a direct way and it is easy to
visualize what is happening to the soil.
Shear box apparatus
The soil is contained in a box (Figure 1) which has a separate top half and bottom
half. A normal stress is applied onto the soil by placing weights on the lid of the box.
The horizontal shear force needed to cause failure of the soil is measured.
Normal force

tan = slope of graph

Sometimes the graph does not pass through the origin and the soil appears to have
some shear strength at zero normal effective stress. This value of shear stress is
called the cohesion c of the soil, measured in kPa. Soil cohesion should be used
with caution in geotechnical design, it adds a lot of apparent strength to the soil but in
many situations, particularly long-term, the cohesion may be less than apparent in
the laboratory test and may even be zero.

Volume change in shear box

As well as measuring the shear force and normal force during the shear box test, we
also measure the vertical movement of the lid of the shear box (Figure 3). If the lid
moves up during the test, the volume of the soil is increasing (dilation). If the lid
moves down during the test, the volume of the soil is decreasing (compression).


Shear force


lid moves up


normal stress

soil volume





lid moves down




soil volume


Figure 1: Shear box test apparatus



Figure 3: Measurement of volume change in the shear box

Usually dense soils dilate during shear and loose soils compress during shear. The
reason for this behaviour is described below.
Dilates (volume increases)
when sheared.

The second graph shows the vertical movement of the lid of the shear box. You can
see for the dense soil the lid may move down a little at the start if the soil is not
perfectly dense but later the lid moves upwards as the soil dilates. The dilation does
not continue for ever but stops when the soil reaches the critical state.
For the loose soil, the lid moves down as the soil compresses. Again, this does not
continue for ever but stops when the soil reaches the critical state. Both the dense
and the loose soils will continue to shear at the critical state without changing volume
(i.e. without the lid moving up or down).

Has a high peak shear

strength but strength reduces
as the soil dilates.

Choice of shear strength for design

Dense soils and loose soils
approach a critical state
density which remains constant
as shear continues.

Compresses (volume reduces)
when sheared.
Has low shear strength which
increases as the soil

Critical state shear strength is

below peak strength but above
loose soil strength. Critical
state shear strength remains
constant as shear continues.

The changing strength and volume of soils during a shear box test is best shown with
typical graphs of shear box test results. Figure 4 below shows two graphs from a
typical shear box test on a dense and loose sample of a soil. Both graphs have the
horizontal travel of the top half of the shear box (x) on the horizontal axis.

The shear strength of a soil measured in the shear box is obtained by plotting a
graph of shear stress at failure (f) against normal effective stress () and calculating
the friction angle , as described above.
For a dense soil, however, it is important that you plot the shear forces at the critical
state and NOT at the peak strength. This is because the peak strength is unstable.
As you can see in the top graph in Figure 4, the peak strength quickly reduces to the
lower critical state strength. The peak strength should therefore never be used in
Also, as described above, in a laboratory test a soil can appear to possess some
strength (or cohesion c) when the normal effective stress is zero. Such cohesion
should only be used in design by experienced designers and even then with caution.
It is better in design to assume zero cohesion.

The first graph shows the shear force T needed to shear the soil during the test. In
the dense soil, a peak shear strength is reached after which the shear strength of the
soil reduces. The loose soil requires only a small shear force at first but the shear
force increases as the test continues. Eventually, both graphs reach the same shear
force and will remain at this shear force if the test is continued. Both the dense and
the loose soil have reached the same critical state.
Shear force, T
dense soil

loose soil
Horizontal travel of shear box, x
Vertical movement
of shear box lid, y


dense soil
Horizontal travel of shear box, x
loose soil


Figure 4: Typical graphs obtained from a shear box test