Ever wondered what exactly concrete is made of and how it becomes so solid? You've probably seen concrete being poured and smoothed over, gradually hardening into a sturdy, durable material used in buildings, bridges, and infrastructure all around us. But concrete doesn't start out rock-hard - it has to go through a chemical process called hydration to harden and gain strength.

Concrete is made up of a few basic ingredients: cement, sand, aggregate like gravel, and water. When these ingredients are mixed together, a chemical reaction is triggered that causes the concrete to set and harden. Over the next few days and weeks, the concrete continues to gain strength through hydration until it reaches its full, solid form. Read on to learn exactly how concrete is made and what gives it the ability to transform from a viscous liquid into a material that can withstand the elements for decades. This is the story of how concrete comes to life.

What Is Concrete Made Of? The Basic Ingredients

Concrete is made up of three basic components: aggregate, cement, and water. Aggregate, like sand and gravel, makes up 60-80% of the total volume of concrete. It provides strength and bulk to the concrete.

Cement, usually Portland cement, binds the aggregate together when mixed with water. Cement only makes up about 10-15% of the total concrete volume but is the most chemically active component. When cement and water are combined, a chemical reaction called hydration occurs. This creates a paste that surrounds and binds the aggregate together.

Water activates the chemical reaction in cement and provides the necessary moisture for hydration. The amount of water added, known as the water-to-cement ratio, is carefully controlled since too much or too little water will affect strength and workability.

Air pockets or air entrainment agents are often added, especially for concrete that will face freeze-thaw conditions. They create tiny air bubbles that allow for expansion and prevent cracking.

Chemical admixtures are frequently added to modify the properties of concrete like setting time, workability or strength. Things like accelerators, retarders, plasticizers and water reducers are common admixtures used.

Reinforcing materials like steel rebar or mesh are also commonly embedded in concrete to provide additional strength, especially for spanning or structural applications.

Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, the concrete is poured into forms and allowed to cure. Curing, which can take weeks, is the process where concrete develops strength as hydration progresses. Moist curing, where concrete is kept damp, is the most common method. Proper curing is critical to achieving maximum strength and durability.

With the right ingredients and care, concrete becomes an extremely strong, durable and versatile building material used in structures across the world. Understanding what goes into making concrete and how it hardens into a solid mass gives you an appreciation for this ubiquitous substance.

How Concrete Is Mixed - Understanding the Manufacturing Process

To make concrete, you first need to gather the basic ingredients: cement, water, and aggregates like sand and gravel. The aggregates provide bulk and strength to the concrete.

Mixing the ingredients

The ingredients are mixed thoroughly in a large revolving drum called a concrete mixer. For smaller amounts, you can use a portable mixer or do it manually on a mixing board.

  1. Add the aggregates and about 60-75% of the water to the mixer. Mix for a couple of minutes until the aggregates are evenly coated.
  2. Add the cement and any admixtures and mix for another couple of minutes until everything is evenly distributed.
  3. Add the remaining water gradually and test the concrete with a slump test to ensure it reaches the desired consistency. The slump - the measure of how much the concrete slumps in a cone - should be around 2 to 4 inches for typical structural concrete.
  4. Once you achieve the desired slump, mix for at least 5 minutes to ensure even distribution of ingredients before transporting and pouring the concrete.

The water reacts with the cement in a chemical reaction called hydration and concrete starts to harden. But concrete continues to cure for weeks and months to gain its full strength. During this time, it's important to keep the concrete damp by covering it or applying curing compounds.

Properly mixed and cured concrete results in a durable material used for foundations, floors, walkways and structures worldwide. Understanding the ingredients and manufacturing process helps ensure you get high quality concrete for your projects.

How Concrete Cures and Hardens Over Time

Concrete cures through a chemical process called hydration. As the concrete hardens, the water in the mix reacts with the cement and creates strong bonds between aggregates. This is what gives concrete its strength and durability.

The curing process begins as soon as you pour the concrete mix. For the first few days, it’s critical to keep the concrete moist by spraying it with water or covering it with wet burlap sacks. This allows for maximum hydration. After the first 3 to 7 days, the concrete will have hardened enough that moisture is not as critical, but it still needs time to fully cure and reach maximum strength.

On average, concrete reaches about 70% of its compressive strength in 7 days. At 28 days, most concrete reaches full strength. The strength will continue to increase slowly over the next few years. The full curing process can take 3 to 5 years, during which chemical reactions continue to strengthen the concrete.

Several factors affect how fast concrete cures:

•Moisture - The more moisture is available, the faster the hydration process. Keeping the concrete damp accelerates curing.

•Temperature - Warm temperatures speed up the chemical reactions in concrete. Curing during hot summer months will be faster than in winter.

•Type of cement - The kind of cement used in the mix impacts cure time. Portland cement cures the fastest. Blended cements and fly ash cements cure slower.

•Mix proportions - The amounts of cement, water, and aggregates in the mix determine how fast it hardens. A higher cement or lower water content will cure faster.

•Admixtures - Chemical admixtures are often added to modify the properties of concrete. Accelerating admixtures speed up curing while retarding admixtures slow it down.

•Thickness - Thinner sections of concrete cure faster since hydration can happen more quickly. Massive sections, like foundations, cure much slower.

The curing process is an important step that determines the final strength and quality of your concrete. With the proper moisture and time, you’ll end up with concrete that is durable and long-lasting.

The Physical Properties and Strengths of Concrete

Once concrete has cured, it develops several important physical properties that make it such a useful building material.


The most important property of concrete is its compressive strength - how much weight it can withstand without crumbling. Concrete's strength comes from the chemical reaction between water and cement. As it hardens, a matrix of calcium silicate hydrate forms. This gives concrete the ability to endure immense pressures without breaking.

The strength of concrete depends on the ratio of the ingredients, how well it's compacted as it sets, and the curing conditions. In general, the more cement used, the stronger the concrete. Adding certain admixtures, like fly ash, can also increase strength. Curing concrete at the proper temperature and moisture levels results in the strongest end product.

Concrete strength is measured using compression testing machines that apply pressure to concrete cylinders or cubes. The amount of pressure needed to crush the sample determines its compressive strength rating in pounds per square inch (psi). Most residential construction uses concrete with a compressive strength between 2500 to 5000 psi. Higher strength concretes, from 6000 to over 10,000 psi, are used in commercial and infrastructure building.


Aside from strength, durability is one of concrete's most valuable properties. When properly proportioned, placed, and cured, concrete can last hundreds of years. Concrete doesn't rot, rust, or decay and is resistant to environmental damage. However, its durability depends on the quality and proportions of its ingredients, as well as protection from moisture. Too much water can lead to cracks from freezing and thawing cycles.

Other Properties

Concrete also has other useful characteristics:

• It's fire resistant and won't burn.

• It's a poor conductor of heat, so it provides insulation.

• It's dense and heavy, which helps with soundproofing.

• It can be moulded into different shapes for architectural and aesthetic purposes.

• It has a long lifespan and low maintenance costs.

Concrete is truly an architectural wonder material with so many beneficial physical properties. When you understand what gives concrete its strength and durability, you can better appreciate why it's used in so many buildings and structures.

The Many Uses of Concrete in Construction and Infrastructure

Concrete has so many uses in construction and infrastructure that it's hard to imagine modern society without it. Thanks to its versatility, durability, and strength, concrete is ideal for:

Buildings and Foundations

Concrete is commonly used in foundations and floors of buildings, as well as walls. It provides stability and support for structures. Concrete can also be moulded into decorative shapes for buildings.

Roads and Pavements

Concrete makes up many roads, streets, parking lots, and driveways. Its hard, durable surface can withstand vehicle traffic and weather over time.


Concrete is a popular material for building bridges. Its compressive strength allows it to support the weight of vehicles driving over bridges. Concrete bridges also tend to last a long time with minimal maintenance required.

Dams and Reservoirs

Massive concrete dams and structures are used to contain water in reservoirs and rivers. The Hoover Dam, for example, uses a huge amount of concrete to hold back the waters of the Colorado River.

Pipes and Sewers

Many underground pipes and sewer systems are made of concrete. Its durability allows it to withstand exposure to liquids and gases without corroding or breaking down over time.

As you can see, concrete truly shapes the built environment around us. Its versatile nature and resilience mean that it continues to be an essential material for construction and infrastructure. The next time you’re walking down a street, driving over a bridge or turning on a tap, spare a thought for the humble concrete that makes it all possible.


Concrete may seem like a simple, mundane substance, but as you've discovered, it's actually an intricate material with a fascinating creation process. Now you can impress friends with your knowledge of aggregates, cement, admixtures and hydration the next time you pass a construction site. You'll never look at a humble concrete slab the same way again!