How to Calculate Density by Water Displacement

By David Chandler; Updated April 24, 2017
The graduated cylinder is an important tool in measuring volume.

Density, the measure of the relationship between the volume and the mass of a substance, is defined by mass divided by volume. For example, water has a density of 1 gram per cubic centimeter at 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). This means 1 gram of water occupies a volume of 1 cubic centimeter, 2 grams of water occupy a volume of 2 cubic centimeters, and so on. .

Finding the mass of a substance is easily accomplished using a balance; finding its volume requires measuring its physical dimensions. The water displacement method is an effective technique for finding the volume of an insoluble, irregular solid and its subsequent density.

Find the mass of the substance using a balance. Record the mass.

Fill a graduated cylinder large enough to hold the insoluble, irregular solid with water to a measured level. Record the volume of water.

Submerge the solid in the graduated cylinder's water. Tap the cylinder gently to allow trapped air bubbles to escape. Record the volume of the water and the submerged object.

Subtract the volume of the water from the volume of the water with the submerged object. For example, if the water volume initially was 6 milliliters and, after the object was submerged, measured 8 milliliters, then the volume of the object is 2 milliliters.

Divide the initial mass measurement by the volume to determine the density of the object. For example, if the mass of the object measured 4 grams and the volume measured 2 milliliters, then the density is 2 grams per milliliter or 2g/ml.


Remember to tare (zero) the balance with the empty container for the substance to gain a proper reading of the mass of the substance.

Solubility is a special concern and water soluble substances may require a substitute liquid.

Remember that 1 milliliter equals 1 cubic centimeter.


Some objects may float in the water and may need to be physically submerged. However, the object should be pushed just below the surface using a small rod to minimize the error introduced by the submerged portion of the rod.

About the Author

David Chandler has been a freelance writer since 2006 whose work has appeared in various print and online publications. A former reconnaissance Marine, he is an active hiker, diver, kayaker, sailor and angler. He has traveled extensively and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida where he was educated in international studies and microbiology.