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How many colors are in a munsell soil color chart?

Soil color is an important characteristic used to help classify and identify soils. The Munsell soil color system is a standard method for specifying soil colors based on three attributes: hue, value, and chroma. The Munsell color chart allows for systematic description of subtle variations in soil colors.

The Munsell soil color charts are used by soil scientists, geologists, archaeologists, and many others to consistently and objectively describe soil colors. The charts provide a way to precisely specify color using a standardized, numerical approach. This allows for accurate communication and record-keeping regarding soil colors both within a discipline and between different fields of study.

But how many different colors are actually included in the Munsell soil color charts? Let’s take a closer look at how the Munsell system works and the number of distinct soil colors it encompasses.

Overview of the Munsell Soil Color System

The Munsell soil color system is based on three attributes of color perception:

  • Hue – the dominant spectral color (red, yellow, green, etc.)
  • Value – the lightness or brightness of the color
  • Chroma – the purity or saturation of the color

In the Munsell system, hue is designated by a letter abbreviation (R for red, YR for yellow-red, etc.). Value is designated on a scale from 0 (pure black) to 10 (pure white). Chroma is also designated on a scale from 0 (neutral gray) to the maximum chroma measurable for that hue.

By systematically varying these three attributes, the Munsell system defines a color space that can describe any color perceptible to the human eye. Soil color charts are printed books or cards showing arranged soil color samples that represent the entire Munsell color space at regular intervals.

Munsell Soil Color Charts

There are a few different standard Munsell soil color charts that are widely used:

  • Munsell Soil Color Charts – contain 228 colors that represent the full range of soils globally.
  • Munsell Soil-Plant Charts – enhanced range of yellow and red hues for plant studies, contains 260 colors.
  • Munsell Agricultural Soil Charts – emphasize colors common in agricultural soils, contains 331 colors.

The original basic Munsell Soil Color Charts contain 228 colors systematically arranged by hue, value, and chroma. This provides sufficient coverage for general soil description and classification work. The expanded charts increase the number of colors in certain hues to better represent the colors of soils in agricultural and plant science applications.

Number of Colors in Each Hue

The 228 colors in the original Munsell Soil Color Charts are distributed across 10 hue families:

Hue Family Number of Colors
10R – Red 33
2.5YR – Yellow-red 28
5YR – Yellow-red 33
7.5YR – Yellow-red 27
10YR – Yellow 27
2.5Y – Yellow 16
5Y – Yellow 11
10Y – Yellow 7
5GY – Green-yellow 16
5G – Green 30

As seen above, the red, yellow-red, and green hues contain the most colors, while the yellow and green-yellow hues have fewer colors. This distribution is designed to best capture the typical range of colors found in soils globally.

Levels of Value and Chroma

Within each hue, colors are organized by levels of value and chroma. Most hues contain 7 levels of value and 4 levels of chroma, with some exceptions at the extremes of brightness and dullness. This leads to the characteristic arrangement of colors for each hue into rows by value and columns by chroma.

For example, for the hue 10R, there are:

  • 7 levels of value – 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
  • 4 levels of chroma – /1, /2, /3, /4

Which gives 7 x 4 = 28 possible color tiles, plus additional tiles for special cases at the value/chroma limits. The complete 10R hue section therefore contains 33 colors in the original soil color charts.

This systematic variation and arrangement of value and chroma within each hue allows subtle color differences to be distinguished. The uniform spacing also enables numeric calculation of color differences.

Use of Soil Color Charts

To determine the Munsell color designation for a soil sample, one simply identifies the hue color row, value level, and chroma column of the closest matching color chip on the chart. For example, a soil with color close to the chip in the 10YR hue row, 5 value level, and 3 chroma column would be described as “10YR 5/3.”

Because the colors are systematically arranged, similar colors fall near each other on the chart aiding comparison. Pages for different hue families can also be flipped through to easily scan for matching chips.

Interpolation between chips can be performed as well. So a soil color falling between 10YR 5/3 and 10YR 5/4 could be annotated as “10YR 5/3.5” based on visual interpolation of value and chroma between the chart colors.

In this way, the Munsell soil color charts provide an organized visual method for consistently communicating observed soil colors.

Advantages of Munsell Soil Color System

Some key advantages of using the Munsell soil color designation system include:

  • Provides consistent terminology for soil colors across disciplines
  • Color designations are directly tied to physical soil samples on the charts
  • Systematically arranged colors support quick scanning to match a sample
  • Numeric designations allow objective comparison between soil colors
  • Interpolation between color chips provides enhanced precision
  • Charts are inexpensive, portable, and durable for field work

The Munsell system removes ambiguity and subjectivity when communicating soil colors. This helps with classification, correlation between soil data sets, chronological studies, and quantitative assessment of color changes.

Limitations of Munsell Soil Color Charts

The Munsell system does have some limitations including:

  • Discrete color samples may not perfectly match all soil variations
  • Interpolation between chips is subjective
  • Chips can fade or be damaged over time
  • Lighting conditions affect perceived color match
  • Not suitable for automated measurement and recording

For very precise work, spectrophotometers and colorimeters can quantify soil color with higher accuracy and without the subjectivity of human visual matching and interpolation. But for most applications, the Munsell soil color charts provide an inexpensive yet effective method for standardized soil color communication.


The Munsell soil color system utilizes carefully designed color charts to enable standardized description of soil colors. The original Munsell Soil Color Charts contain a total of 228 distinct soil color samples systematically organized by hue, value, and chroma to adequately represent the complete range of soils globally.

Expanded agricultural and plant science versions of the charts include additional colors for improved representation of soils in those disciplines. But all are based on the same fundamental Munsell color space defined by hue, value, and chroma.

Used properly, Munsell soil color charts remove ambiguity and provide an inexpensive way to accurately communicate observed soil colors for classification, comparison, and recording purposes across different fields of study.

So in summary, the standard Munsell Soil Color Charts contain 228 distinct colors, the Munsell Soil-Plant Charts contain 260 colors, and the Munsell Agricultural Soil Charts contain 331 colors. But all provide an organized visual method for designating soil colors based on the central Munsell color system.