Tarmac vs Asphalt – The key differences

Tarmac and asphalt are two of the most common substances used in construction. Both provide lasting strength, stability, and durability for surfaces such as driveways or roads. Even though there are many similarities between tarmac and asphalt driveways, they do have some distinct differences that you may not be aware of when it comes to their composition – but more on that later! Let’s have a look at the key differences between tarmac driveways and asphalt.

driveway surfaces

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Tarmac vs Asphalt

While tarmac and asphalt are commonly used to pave driveways, pathways, and roads, they have distinct differences. Asphalt is made up of a mix of aggregates and bitumen which takes up to two days to cure. On the other hand, tarmac consists of crushed stone mixed with tar and cures more quickly. Below I have listed some of the main points of differentiation between tarmac vs asphalt paving.

durable surfacing material


When it comes to choosing a driveway material, deciding between tarmac and asphalt can be tricky. While they appear similar from the outside, there are distinct differences to consider before making your choice. To help make this decision easier, here is an overview of the basic differences between tarmac and asphalt.

When deciding between tarmac vs asphalt driveways for your home, weigh up the key factors I go into more detail about below carefully: initial cost, longevity & durability, ease & speed of installation and maintenance requirements—this should help you make an informed decision about which material will best suit your needs.

If you’re trying to decide the difference between tarmac, and asphalt for your driveway, you’ve come to the right place.

extreme weather conditions

What is tarmac?

Let’s start with the language, tarmac is short for “tarmacadam” – which was fittingly named after its inventor, John Loudon McAdam. He brought forward the “macadamizing technique” where roads should be constructed so that they are raised above the surrounding area for optimal drainage, and later covered with large rocks, followed by smaller stones. The entire road should be bound together with fine gravel or slag.

Although these advancements were impressive, they still weren’t quite what we recognize as modern-day tarmac. What set it apart was the addition of tar to bind everything together and give additional strength that made for a smoother surface along with greater durability than previously seen. This innovation came from “Edgar Purnell Hooley” who improved upon McAdam’s pioneering efforts in this field.

It was a serendipitous moment that truly brought Hooley’s tar addition to tarmac to unprecedented heights. Following the acquisition of a tar manufacturing factory, he went for a stroll on the grounds one day when he found an overturned drum with sticky tar spilling out of it over the floor. To keep the surface from remaining tacky and slippery, Hooley spread gravel over it- and thus came into existence modern tarmac!

Tarmac has the disadvantage of being easily damaged by fuel such as diesel and gasoline. Therefore, tar in tarmac is usually replaced with asphalt, a material that is more resistant to damage.

How long does tarmac last?

Tarmac should last up to 15 years, depending on the quality of installation and conditions. If it is laid correctly with a suitable sub-base, good drainage and regular maintenance, then the tarmac can remain in great condition for decades.

Many elements can influence the extended life of a tarmac driveway, such as:

  • The gradual damage the tarmac incurs over time
  • The total volume of vehicles going over it
  • Typical weather conditions
smooth surface

What Is Asphalt?

Asphalt has a long and rich history, dating back to ancient times. It was used by the Babylonians for roofing materials, as well as other applications such as road paving. The Sumerians also used asphalt in their construction projects, utilizing it for waterproofing purposes.

In the late 19th Century, there were numerous advances in asphalt manufacturing processes that allowed for wider use of this material in road construction. Soon after, it was being used in driveways and pavements around Europe and the United States.

By the mid-20th Century, the increasing number of cars on roads meant that asphalt had to be able to withstand heavier traffic levels and different weather conditions. This meant more research into asphalt’s properties so that it could become more durable and flexible than ever before.

So what’s it made from? It’s made up of a combination of stone, gravel, and sand, which are all bound together by bitumen. This gives the asphalt its strength and ability to form a hard, durable surface when laid correctly.

The creation process begins with the selection and preparation of the aggregates – stones, pieces of rock, or gravel – that will be used in the mix. These are then crushed down into fine particles before being combined with bitumen.

Water is added to produce an even mixture which can later be laid down on the required surface in layers. Once this has been done, compaction is undertaken to ensure that all the particles come together tightly and form a flat, solid surface.

Asphalt is incredibly durable and resilient, making it an ideal choice for driveways, roads, and other large surfaces. However, its hard-wearing nature means that it can be more susceptible to wear and tear from car tires than tarmac. As a result, asphalt may require more regular maintenance to ensure that it remains in good condition over time.

Asphalt is also a great choice for the environment. It’s made from natural materials, so it not only produces fewer harmful emissions than other options but it can also be recycled and reused, reducing its overall environmental impact. This makes asphalt an ideal choice for creating green surfaces that are both safe and sustainable in the long term.

How long does asphalt last?

The average lifespan of asphalt can vary greatly, depending on the quality of installation and the conditions in which it is used. Generally speaking, however, asphalt should last between 10 and 20 years before requiring any major repairs or resurfacing. With proper maintenance, you can extend the life of your asphalt surfaces even further.

asphalt concrete

Tarmac vs Asphalt differences

Tarmac and asphalt are often used to create the same types of surfaces such as driveways, roads, and pavements. However, they are distinct materials with different properties. Below, I have outlined some key points that distinguish these two paving materials from one another:

  • Asphalt provides a smoother, more finished surface than tarmac, making it a safer choice for roads and driveways. This is because asphalt contains smaller aggregates than tarmac. Additionally, this helps to increase tire grip for a more secure ride.
  • Asphalt is typically more expensive than tarmac for large-scale projects.
  • Petrol and diesel spills can damage the tarmac meaning it may need to be maintained more often compared to asphalt.
  • Asphalt is more eco-friendly than tarmac as it can be reused and re-engineered, making it a popular choice for sustainable projects.
asphalt driveway vs tarmac driveway

Tarmac vs Asphalt likeness

So I’ve spoken about the differences, let’s explore the similarities:

  • Both are composed of aggregate materials
  • Both tarmac and asphalt are comprised of petroleum products, as well as fillers such as sand and aggregates such as crushed rock.
  • Both can withstand the weight of large loads and the constant coverage of vehicles.

Just remember, whether you choose asphalt or tarmac for your project, proper installation and regular maintenance are key to ensuring a long-lasting surface. With the right care, your driveway, road, or pavement can last for many years to come.

cars on road tarmac or asphalt


So now we know that both asphalt and tarmac are often used to pave driveways, pathways, and roads. However, they have distinct differences. Asphalt comprises of a blend of aggregates and bitumen which requires up to two days for curing. Whereas tarmac is composed of crushed stone mixed with tar which cures faster.

  • Asphalt is a better option for roads and driveways due to its smoother and more finished surface, compared to tarmac. This is because it includes smaller aggregates, offering greater tire grip for improved road safety.
  • Large-scale projects usually involve higher costs when using asphalt, compared to tarmac.
  • Petrol and diesel spills are more likely to damage tarmac, leading to increased maintenance compared to asphalt.
  • Asphalt is a preferred choice for environmentally conscious projects due to its recyclable and re-engineerable properties.

People also ask

Is asphalt more expensive than tarmac?

Yes, asphalt is typically more expensive than tarmac for large-scale projects. Asphalt involves more labor and materials, including smaller aggregates compared to tarmac.

How thick should tarmac be on a driveway?

Tarmac for driveways should typically be around 20mm to 25mm thick.

Do you need planning permission to tarmac your drive?

In most cases, planning permission is not required for tarmacking a driveway. However, it is best to check the local regulations beforehand.

Why do they put white stones in tarmac?

Incorporating White Dolomite into a newly built tarmac surface has multiple advantages. Firstly, its reflective properties help reduce the amount of heat absorption from the sun’s rays which prevents asphalt from softening or breaking down in hot areas. Additionally, it makes the asphalt surface more permeable so that rainwater can naturally seep away without issue.

Should weeds come through tarmac?

Asphalt or tarmacadam surfacing can be affected by weed damage, either at the surface level or from deep below. The edge of the tarmac is particularly prone to weed growth, in areas close to lawns, flower beds, trees, large shrubs and near stationery items like plant pots.

What time of year is best to lay tarmac?

The best time of year to lay tarmac is typically during the spring or summer. This is because warm temperatures and longer days are ideal for setting the asphalt, as well as allowing more time for it to dry and cure. It’s important to also take into account any local weather conditions, as an extended dry period may be necessary for the asphalt to properly set and harden.

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Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright

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