Radial consolidation testing of Ballina clay (New South Wales, Australia) was carried out using a large-scale consolidometer 650 mm in diameter. In this study, the characteristics of the smear zone were evaluated on the basis of hydraulic gradient changes derived from the measured excess pore pressure data in the radial direction. The extent of the smear zone determined using this technique is compared with past approaches, where the variations in water content and lateral permeability were adopted to evaluate smear. The approach proposed herein based on the change of hydraulic gradient coincides with the previous two methods, and the smear zone could be established at almost 2·5 times the effective mandrel diameter. A good agreement is also found between the theoretical radial consolidation predictions, after incorporating the smear zone characteristics and the measured time-settlement curve. The proposed method for the determination of smear zone extent can be carried out during consolidation with minimum disturbance to soil, provided a sufficient number of pore pressure transducers are installed. It also eliminates the need for a number of soil samples and high-quality soil sampling technique after the installation of the drain.