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 Bowen's reaction 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. Fine-grained aquifers, such as sandstones, are better able to filter out pollutants from the surface than are rocks with cracks and crevices, such as limestone or other rocks fractured by seismic activity.
Sandstones are clastic in origin (as opposed to either organic, like chalk and coal, or chemical, like gypsum and jasper). They are formed from cemented grains that may either be fragments of a pre-existing rock or be mono-minerallic crystals. The cements binding these grains together are typically calcite, clays, and silica. Grain sizes in sands are defined (in geology) within the range of 0.0625 mm to 2 mm (0.0025–0.08 inches). Clays and sediments with smaller grain sizes not visible with the naked eye, including siltstones and shales, are typically called argillaceous sediments; rocks with larger grain sizes, including breccias and conglomerates, are termed rudaceous sediments.
The formation of sandstone involves two principal stages. First, a layer or layers of sand accumulates as the result of sedimentation, either from water (as in a stream, lake, or sea) or from air (as in a desert). Typically, sedimentation occurs by the sand settling out from suspension; i.e., ceasing to be rolled or bounced along the bottom of a body of water or ground surface (e.g., in a desert or erg). Finally, once it has accumulated, the sand becomes sandstone when it is compacted by the pressure of overlying deposits and cemented by the precipitation of minerals within the pore spaces between sand grains.
The most common cementing materials are silica and calcium carbonate, which are often derived either from dissolution or from alteration of the sand after it was buried. Colors will usually be tan or yellow (from a blend of the clear quartz with the dark amber feldspar content of the sand). A predominant additional colourant in the southwestern United States is iron oxide, which imparts reddish tints ranging from pink to dark red (terracotta), with additional manganese imparting a purplish hue. Red sandstones, both Old Red Sandstone and New Red Sandstone, are also seen in the Southwest and West of Britain, as well as central Europe and Mongolia. The regularity of the latter favours use as a source for masonry, either as a primary building material or as a facing stone, over other forms of construction.
The environment where it is deposited is crucial in determining the characteristics of the resulting sandstone, which, in finer detail, include its grain size, sorting, and composition and, in more general detail, include the rock geometry and sedimentary structures. Principal environments of deposition may be split between terrestrial and marine, as illustrated by the following broad groupings:
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.
All sandstones are composed of the same general minerals. These minerals make up the framework components of the sandstones. Such components are quartz, feldspars, and lithic fragments. Matrix may also be present in the interstitial spaces between the framework grains. Below is a list of several major groups of sandstones. These groups are divided based on mineralogy and texture. Even though sandstones have very simple compositions which are based on framework grains, geologists have not been able to agree on a specific, right way, to classify sandstones. Sandstone classifications are typically done by point-counting a thin section using a method like the Gazzi-Dickinson Method. The composition of a sandstone can have important information regarding the genesis of the sediment when used with a triangular Quartz, Feldspar, Lithic fragment (QFL diagrams). Many geologists, however, do not agree on how to separate the triangle parts into the single components so that the framework grains can be plotted. Therefore, there have been many published ways to classify sandstones, all of which are similar in their general format.
Visual aids are diagrams that allow geologists to interpret different characteristics about a sandstone. The following QFL chart and the sandstone provenance model correspond with each other therefore, when the QFL chart is plotted those points can then be plotted on the sandstone provenance model. The stage of textural maturity chart illustrates the different stages that a sandstone goes through.
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 for domestic construction and housewares since prehistoric times, and continues to be used.
Sandstone was a popular building material from ancient times. It is relatively soft, making it easy to carve. It has been widely used around the world in constructing temples, homes, and other buildings. It has also been used for artistic purposes to create ornamental fountains and statues.
Some sandstones are resistant to weathering, yet are easy to work. This makes sandstone a common building and paving material including in asphalt concrete. However, some that have been used in the past, such as the Collyhurst sandstone used in North West England, have been found less resistant, 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.