Most sandstone is composed of quartz or feldspar (both silicates) because they are the most resistant minerals to weathering processes at the Earth's surface, as seen in the Goldich dissolution series. Like uncemented sand, sandstone may be any color due to impurities within the minerals, but the most common colors are tan, brown, yellow, red, grey, pink, white, and black. Since sandstone beds often form highly visible cliffs and other topographic features, certain colors of sandstone have been strongly identified with certain regions.
Rock formations that are primarily composed of sandstone usually allow the percolation of water and other fluids and are porous enough to store large quantities, making them valuable aquifers and petroleum reservoirs.
Sandstones are clastic in origin (as opposed to either organic, like chalk and coal, or chemical, like gypsum and jasper). The silicate sand grains from which they form are the product of physical and chemical weathering of bedrock. Weathering and erosion are most rapid in areas of high relief, such as volcanic arcs, areas of continental rifting, and orogenic belts.
Eroded sand is transported by rivers or by the wind from its source areas to depositional environments where tectonics has created accommodation space for sediments to accumulate. Forearc basins tend to accumulate sand rich in lithic grains and plagioclase. Intracontinental basins and grabens along continental margins are also common environments for deposition of sand.
As sediments continue to accumulate in the depositional environment, older sand is buried by younger sediments, and it undergoes diagenesis. This mostly consists of compaction and lithification of the sand. Early stages of diagenesis, described as eogenesis, take place at shallow depths (a few tens of meters) and is characterized by bioturbation and mineralogical changes in the sands, with only slight compaction. The red hematite that gives red bed sandstones their color is likely formed during eogenesis. Deeper burial is accompanied by mesogenesis, during which most of the compaction and lithification takes place.
Compaction takes place as the sand comes under increasing pressure from overlying sediments. Sediment grains move into more compact arrangements, ductile grains (such as mica grains) are deformed, and pore space is reduced. In addition to this physical compaction, chemical compaction may take place via pressure solution. Points of contact between grains are under the greatest strain, and the strained mineral is more soluble than the rest of the grain. As a result, the contact points are dissolved away, allowing the grains to come into closer contact.
Lithification follows closely on compaction, as increased temperatures at depth hasten deposition of cement that binds the grains together. Pressure solution contributes to cementing, as the mineral dissolved from strained contact points is redeposited in the unstrained pore spaces.
Mechanical compaction takes place primarily at depths less than 1,000 meters (3,300 ft). Chemical compaction continues to depths of 2,000 meters (6,600 ft), and most cementation takes place at depths of 2,000–5,000 meters (6,600–16,400 ft).
Unroofing of buried sandstone is accompanied by telogenesis, the third and final stage of diagenesis. As erosion reduces the depth of burial, renewed exposure to meteoric water produces additional changes to the sandstone, such as dissolution of some of the cement to produce secondary porosity.
Framework grains are sand-sized (0.0625-to-2-millimetre (0.00246 to 0.07874 in) diameter) detrital fragments that make up the bulk of a sandstone. These grains can be classified into several different categories based on their mineral composition:
Matrix is very fine material, which is present within interstitial pore space between the framework grains. The nature of the matrix within the interstitial pore space results in a twofold classification:
Cement is what binds the siliciclastic framework grains together. Cement is a secondary mineral that forms after deposition and during burial of the sandstone. These cementing materials may be either silicate minerals or non-silicate minerals, such as calcite.
Pore space includes the open spaces within a rock or a soil. The pore space in a rock has a direct relationship to the porosity and permeability of the rock. The porosity and permeability are directly influenced by the way the sand grains are packed together.
Sandstones are typically classified by point-counting a thin section using a method like the Gazzi-Dickinson Method. This yields the relative percentages of quartz, feldspar, and lithic grains and the amount of clay matrix. The composition of a sandstone can provide important information on the genesis of the sediments when used with a triangular Quartz, Feldspar, Lithic fragment (QFL diagrams). However, geologist have not been able to agree on a set of boundaries separating regions of the QFL triangle.
Visual aids are diagrams that allow geologists to interpret different characteristics of a sandstone. For example, a QFL chart can be marked with a provenance model that shows the likely tectonic origin of sandstones with various compositions of framework grains. Likewise, the stage of textural maturity chart illustrates the different stages that a sandstone goes through as the degree of kinetic processing of the sediments increases.
Dott's (1964) sandstone classification scheme is one of many such schemes used by geologists for classifying sandstones. Dott's scheme is a modification of Gilbert's classification of silicate sandstones, and it incorporates R.L. Folk's dual textural and compositional maturity concepts into one classification system. The philosophy behind combining Gilbert's and R. L. Folk's schemes is that it is better able to "portray the continuous nature of textural variation from mudstone to arenite and from stable to unstable grain composition". Dott's classification scheme is based on the mineralogy of framework grains, and on the type of matrix present in between the framework grains.
In this specific classification scheme, Dott has set the boundary between arenite and wackes at 15% matrix. In addition, Dott also breaks up the different types of framework grains that can be present in a sandstone into three major categories: quartz, feldspar, and lithic grains.
Sandstone has been used since prehistoric times for construction, decorative art works and housewares, and continues to be used. It has been widely employed around the world in constructing temples, homes, and other buildings.
Although its resistance to weathering varies, sandstone is easy to work. That makes it a common building and paving material, including in asphalt concrete. However, some types that have been used in the past, such as the Collyhurst sandstone used in North West England, have had poor long-term weather resistance, necessitating repair and replacement in older buildings. Because of the hardness of individual grains, uniformity of grain size and friability of their structure, some types of sandstone are excellent materials from which to make grindstones, for sharpening blades and other implements. Non-friable sandstone can be used to make grindstones for grinding grain, e.g., gritstone.
A type of pure quartz sandstone, orthoquartzite, with more of 90–95 percent of quartz, has been proposed for nomination to the Global Heritage Stone Resource. In some regions of Argentina, the orthoquartzite-stoned facade is one of the main features of the Mar del Plata style bungalows.