Selected carbon-rich refinery residues (‘binders’) mixed with mineral particles can form composite materials (‘bituminous concrete’) with bulk mechanical properties comparable to those of cement concrete. The microstructural mechanism underlying the remarkable composite properties has been related to the appearance of a rigid percolating network consisting of asphaltenes and mineral particles [Wilbrink M. et al. (2005) Rigidity percolation in dispersions with a structured visco-elastic matrix. Phys. Rev. E71, 031402]. In this paper, we explore the microstructure of thin binder films of varying thickness with a number of microscopic characterization techniques, and attempt to relate the observed microstructure to the distinctive mechanical behaviour. Two binders, only one of which has been proven to be suitable for bituminous concrete were investigated, and their microstructure compared. Both binders show the formation of asphaltene aggregates. The binder suitable for bituminous concrete is distinguished by the fact that the asphaltenes show a stronger tendency towards such aggregation, due to a higher concentration and less stabilization in the maltene phase. They also show a clear affinity to other species (such as waxes) and may act as nucleation sites for crystals and aggregates of those species.