Do It Yourself Brake Change

Brake Safety

Complete brake failure is rare with our modern technology. Automobile brakes work on a closed hydraulic system and, unless the hydraulic lines have been cut or damaged causing a hydraulic fluid leak, there is a slim chance that your brakes will not function when you need them. But, it is important to check your brakes for wear and replace them when it is time. How do you know when it is time to replace your brake pads?

There is usually two methods of sensory warning: sound and sight. First, the noise of 'bad brakes' can sound like a loud squealing. Why? Because on many brake pads there is a metal tab and when the pads reach a certain thinness the tab will rub against the rotor causing the squealing sound.

Second, on many of the new automobiles there is an electronic device that triggers a warning light in which the driver is then alerted to have the brakes checked.

If you experience a 'grinding' sound when you brake, of metal on metal, the brakes have gone past the 'safe' point and it is imperative to get them changed immediately.


Brake Service

I interviewed auto mechanic, Glen M., who is employed with the public works department in our rural North Carolina town and he offered me a tour of his garage. “Typically, brakes are good for an average of 30,000 miles before the pads need replacing. Of course, depending on what type of driver you are will be a factor in the frequency of changing them.”

I asked Glen if the ‘average Joe’ could replace his own brakes or if it would ‘safer’ to have a certified mechanic do the job. According to Glen, with a little practice and the right tools, anyone can change their own brakes and thus, save themselves money in the process.

“Between the parts and labor, you are looking at an average savings of at least one hundred dollars,” Glen told me.

Let’s do the math: if a car averages 100,000 miles or more before it is turned in for a new vehicle and the average brakes are good for 30,000 miles before a change is necessary, that would equal three changes of $100 each for a total savings of three hundred dollars. Add into that a second vehicle for your spouse and a third family car for the teen with the driver’s license and you are now up to almost a grand…with just an initial investment of tools. Not a bad savings. And, speaking of tools, Glen gave me a rundown of what is needed for the job.





Brake Service

Do It Yourself!  Brake job.
Do It Yourself! Brake job. | Source

Shop Talk

Changing the brake pads, calipers and rotors can be done in your own garage with these tools borrowed, bought or rented. To help you understand the brake system here are some vocabulary words and their definitions.

Brakes: a type of clutch that slows or stops motion by use of a rotating shaft and fixed component.

Brake Bleed: (or 'bleeding the brakes;), removing the air from a brake line. This prevents the brake fluid to be filled with ‘air’ bubbles which would cause an ineffective braking system.

Brake fluid-hydraulic fluid, which is necessary for the brake system to work. As pressure is exerted on the brakes the hydraulic / brake fluid travels through the lines to the calipers; the calipers then press on the rotors which slow or stop the vehicle.

Brake pads-this is the anti-friction material that lines the brake calipers. In the past these were made from asbestos, but now they are made of cotton or rubber.

Caliper: houses the brake pads; surrounds the rotor and presses against the rotor disk.

Friction: resistance to motion between the contact surfaces of two objects. Because friction generates heat the brake pads are covered with anti-friction material, which reduces wear.

Master cylinder-located on the firewall inside of engine compartment. It stores the brake fluid and hydraulically forces it through the brake system.

Piston-this is a cylinder shaped component that moves in and out inside a hollow cylinder according to the pressure changes in the hydraulic system to squeeze the rotor via brake pads. It’s located the inside the caliper.

Rotor: this is a rotating disk that stops motion when pressure is applied by the caliper.

Torque wrench-a special wrench used to tighten lug nuts or bolts when the amount of tension is crucial; using a torque wrench prevents over tightening of a bolt.




Brake Tool and Equipment Table

Brake Tool or Equipment
Brake Tool Detail
Purpose
Safety Glasses
Any size that fits
To protect the eyes
Brake pads
manufacture's specifications
to replace old, worn brake pads
Brake fluid
1 can of Dot 3 or Dot 4
to top off brake fluid reservoir
Floor jack
1-2.5 ton depending on size of job
convenience of lifting 2 wheels off floor at same time
Jack stands
size varies-use according to job
safety: keeps vehicle from falling
Drive ratchet
1/2 inch drive with long handle
to remove the caliper mounting bolts
Flat tipped screwdriver
heavy, long handle
to pry caliper off rotars if stuck
Breaker Bar (or Cheater Bar)
at least the length of the ratchet
substitute for long handled ratchet
Lug wrench or Torque wrench
Torque wrench is recommended
to remove lug nuts from the wheel rim
Box End wrench
3/8 inch OR 10 mm
for opening and closing bleeder valve
Sockets
to fit caliper mounting bolts
to remove and secure mounting bolts
C-Clamp
4 "/car OR 6"/ med-heavy truck
compresses piston when replacing pads
Bungee cords
2-4
fastens calipers to frame while doing rotor resurfacing
Light
Drop light or battery operated magnetic
to light up work area
Rotor lathe machine
---
for resurfacing rotors
Empty container
Large enough to contain old brake fluid
to hold displaced brake fluid from piston

Brake tools and equipment set up

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Preparing the work spaceSetting the tools out within reachNew brake pads and tools
Preparing the work space
Preparing the work space | Source
Setting the tools out within reach
Setting the tools out within reach | Source
New brake pads and tools
New brake pads and tools | Source

A Do It Yourself Guide to Brake Service

Step 1 Prepare your workspace:

Organization is the key to good auto maintenance. Whether it is checking the manufacture's guide to recommended upkeep, or preparing for your next project, good organization will keep you focused and make the job go smoother.

The first step in doing any maintenance project is to gather the tools and equipment you need. Before getting started you want to double check that you have everything that is recommended from the manufacture's guidebook. If it is required to use a particular size or type of product, such as the right brake fluid, then be sure you do not have to stop in the middle of your project to buy it.

Observing an organized mechanic at work is like watching a well choreographed dance. Auto mechanic, Glen M. explained some of the tools he uses when inspecting and changing brakes. He sets his tools out and double checks that he has the correct products before he begins the job.

DYI projects: Safety

Click thumbnail to view full-size
It's important to use the proper equipment when working under a carWhen the floor jack lifts the car stay safe by using jack stands to keep it from falling down.
It's important to use the proper equipment when working under a car
It's important to use the proper equipment when working under a car | Source
When the floor jack lifts the car stay safe by using jack stands to keep it from falling down.
When the floor jack lifts the car stay safe by using jack stands to keep it from falling down. | Source

Shop Safety

Step 2: Use the proper jack and jack stands to lift the car

Once you have your equipment and tools in place you can perpare to work on the car brakes. Step 2 is all about maintaining a safe work environment. You'll begin this by setting up the floor jack and jack stands. A floor jack differs from a bottle jack in the fact that it lifts one end of the vehicle and not just one tire.

When changing the brakes you will want to change either both front brakes, both back brakes or all four. It is useful, therefore, to lift the whole area that you will work on instead of lifting one wheel at al time. This saves time and makes the job go smoother.

The jack stands are a safety device. They will keep the car from falling back down and prevent injuries in the process.

Position your light, if needed, especially if you are working in a dark garage.

Put your safety glasses on to begin your work.

How to do Brakes: First Steps

Because the pads are inside the calipers you will not be able to check their condition without removing the tire. Use your lug wrench to remove the lug nuts on your wheel and place the tire off to the side with the lug nuts.

Next, with a flashlight or drop light, visually inspect the condition of the pads. The pad should be replaced if it is 1/4 inch measurement or less.

Finally, using the box end wrench, you will loosen the bleeder valve located at the top of the caliper.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
After the tire has been removed you are ready to inspect the brakesPlace the tire out of your way with the lug nutsNew brake pads (Blue) compared to old pads. The middle pad is the stationary side; the pad close to reader is the piston side-more wear.Pads 1/4 inch or less should be changedBrake pads are housed in the caliperInspect the brakes before removing the calipersUse a light for optimal inspection of the condition of the brake systemBleeder Valve is located on the caliperUse a Box End wrench to open the bleeder valve
After the tire has been removed you are ready to inspect the brakes
After the tire has been removed you are ready to inspect the brakes | Source
Place the tire out of your way with the lug nuts
Place the tire out of your way with the lug nuts | Source
New brake pads (Blue) compared to old pads. The middle pad is the stationary side; the pad close to reader is the piston side-more wear.
New brake pads (Blue) compared to old pads. The middle pad is the stationary side; the pad close to reader is the piston side-more wear. | Source
Pads 1/4 inch or less should be changed
Pads 1/4 inch or less should be changed | Source
Brake pads are housed in the caliper
Brake pads are housed in the caliper | Source
Inspect the brakes before removing the calipers
Inspect the brakes before removing the calipers | Source
Use a light for optimal inspection of the condition of the brake system
Use a light for optimal inspection of the condition of the brake system | Source
Bleeder Valve is located on the caliper
Bleeder Valve is located on the caliper | Source
Use a Box End wrench to open the bleeder valve
Use a Box End wrench to open the bleeder valve | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
C-clamps come in various sizes and are used to compress the piston after the pads are removed.Socket ratches are used to remove the calipersIf a socket ratchet is too short use a breaker bar attached to the end to do the job.An example of a makeshift long handled ratchet using a breaker bar, or 'cheater's bar'.Location of the caliper on a rotar.Remove the caliper to get to the brake pads, and inspect for damage.  Replace as necessary.
C-clamps come in various sizes and are used to compress the piston after the pads are removed.
C-clamps come in various sizes and are used to compress the piston after the pads are removed. | Source
Socket ratches are used to remove the calipers
Socket ratches are used to remove the calipers | Source
If a socket ratchet is too short use a breaker bar attached to the end to do the job.
If a socket ratchet is too short use a breaker bar attached to the end to do the job. | Source
An example of a makeshift long handled ratchet using a breaker bar, or 'cheater's bar'.
An example of a makeshift long handled ratchet using a breaker bar, or 'cheater's bar'. | Source
Location of the caliper on a rotar.
Location of the caliper on a rotar. | Source
Remove the caliper to get to the brake pads, and inspect for damage.  Replace as necessary.
Remove the caliper to get to the brake pads, and inspect for damage. Replace as necessary. | Source

Calipers, C-Clamps and Pistons

Calipers: To remove the calipers you will use a socket ratchet with a breaker handle to remove the four mounting bolts. If the caliper is stuck and cannot be easily removed you may also need to use the long handled, flat tipped, screwdriver to assist in this step.

Once the calipers have been removed you will want to carefully inspect the unit for cracks, breaks and function. The unit will consist of the caliper housing, the piston, and the brake pads, which you will be removing. Specifically, you will need to note if the caliper is sticking, broken or cracked; or, if the piston is broken or leaking.

Brake pads: There are two pads inside the calipers, a stationary side and a piston side. You will remove the stationary side pad, but keep the piston pad in place to protect the piston when using the C-clamp. Compare the wear on the two pads. Often, the stationary pad has less wear than the pad on the side of the piston, which is the side that moves to the rotor to stop the car.

C-clamp: The C-clamp is used to compress the piston. You will need a small container to catch the displaced brake fluid from the bleeder valve as the piston is compressed.

Bleeder valve: (also referred to as the Schrader valve)-keep the valve open as you are compressing the piston to allow the displaced fluid to come out. When the piston is completely compressed you will close it to avoid air getting in the system.

Once the piston has been compressed the C-clamp and old pad is removed. Replace the old pads with the new pads and put the calipers back on the frame of the car with the use of bungee cords.

Bungee cords: It is recommended that you secure the calipers to the frame with a couple of bungee cords if you need to work on the rotors. Otherwise, anything could cause them to fall and get damaged in the process.


Replacing Rotors

Rotors will not automatically be replaced each time the brake pads are changed. Here are some indicators that they do need to be changed: if you hit the brakes and the steering wheel shakes or shimmies, it could mean that your front rotors are warped. And, if you feel the shimmy hit the back of your seat it is a strong indicator there is a warped rear rotor. Either or both of these situations would prompt you to investigate your brake system further.

When the tire is off and while you are inspecting the brake pads also inspect the rotors. If they are grooved, like an old LP record, then it is time to resurface them. The surface should be smooth. You can do this on a lathe machine by rotating them. However, take care to keep the resurfacing according to the manufacturer's recommendation for thickness-which you will measure.

You will find the specific recommendation for the rotors stamped on the outside of the edge of the rotor. If your rotor does not meet these specifications, because they are too thin, they will need to be replaced.

Use the lathe machine to smooth the grooves, (resurface), the rotor. While the rotor is turning observe whether it is a symmetrical or warped turn. If it turns in a flip floppy way it is warped and you will have to purchase new ones. Once you've resurfaced and checked the rotors for a smooth turn you can reinstall them on the hub.

If you do not have a lathe, or cannot rent or borrow one, many tire shops have a rotor turning service that will do this for you. This usually runs about $30 per pair of rotors and takes approximately fifteen minutes per rotor.

Compare this fee, however, with the cost of new rotors. According to Glen, if the cost is comparable it is wiser to just replace the rotors with new ones.

Rotor Resurfacing

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Rotor after it was resurfaced-note the smooth, even surface.check each rotor for the manufacturer's specifications for thickness stamped on the rim.Smooth the rotor grooves with a lathe machine.Rotor lathe machineResurfaced rotors waiting to be reinstalled.This is a rotor.Grooves in a rotor are indicators of damage; a rotor needs to be resurfaced or replaced if it looks like an old LP record.Remove the rotor if you need to work on it or replace it.
Rotor after it was resurfaced-note the smooth, even surface.
Rotor after it was resurfaced-note the smooth, even surface. | Source
check each rotor for the manufacturer's specifications for thickness stamped on the rim.
check each rotor for the manufacturer's specifications for thickness stamped on the rim. | Source
Smooth the rotor grooves with a lathe machine.
Smooth the rotor grooves with a lathe machine. | Source
Rotor lathe machine
Rotor lathe machine | Source
Resurfaced rotors waiting to be reinstalled.
Resurfaced rotors waiting to be reinstalled. | Source
This is a rotor.
This is a rotor. | Source
Grooves in a rotor are indicators of damage; a rotor needs to be resurfaced or replaced if it looks like an old LP record.
Grooves in a rotor are indicators of damage; a rotor needs to be resurfaced or replaced if it looks like an old LP record. | Source
Remove the rotor if you need to work on it or replace it.
Remove the rotor if you need to work on it or replace it. | Source

Brake Fluid

If you have not already replaced the new brake pads into the calipers you will do this now. Remove the bungee cords, install the brake pads and reinstall the calipers onto the mounting frame using the socket ratchet to tighten the bolts.

Press the brake pedal 3-4 times to engage the hydraulic system and check that the brakes are working. Remember: the calipers are wide open right now and by pressing the brakes it will engage the calipers to close. This is a must do to avoid a situation where you drive the car out of the garage without any brakes.

Check the brake fluid level, and if it is low, top it off with the brake fluid Dot 3 or Dot 4.

Lastly, reinstall the tire using the torque or lug wrench. Most people don't have torque wrenches so be careful not to over torque the lug nuts or you can stretch the threads of the studs, which will weaken them. Check your owner's manuel for recommended torque. Glen M. the mechanic suggests if you don't have that information you can't go wrong with 80-100 ft. lbs of torque. 


Use the Right Brake Fluid

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Brake fluid reservoir.Brake fluidWhat brake pads look like brand new.
Brake fluid reservoir.
Brake fluid reservoir. | Source
Brake fluid
Brake fluid | Source
What brake pads look like brand new.
What brake pads look like brand new. | Source

Important tips for Brake service

Brake fluid is a toxic substance. It can cause damage to your vehicle paint and upholstry. Carefully pour it into the brake reervoir with a funnel. Quickly clean up any spills. While Dot 3 and Dot 4 are compatible and either can be used in your car, Dot 5 is not and should not be treated as such. It is a silicone base, which differs from the Dot 3 and 4.

When replacing the lug nuts on the tire do not apply them in a circular manner. An inexperienced person might think this is alright, however, there is a manufacture's recommended pattern to tighten these nuts. This is usually a diagonal or opposing tightening pattern. Consult the driver's manual for specifics.

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After reading this hub would you attempt to change the brakes on your own car?

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Comments 26 comments

MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

Excellent job! I have seen my husband replace the brakes on our cars and it is so involved. But, I have to tell you, his brake dance didn't look choreographed!


TToombs08 profile image

TToombs08 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

Great hub! It really does save a lot of money. Voting up and well done. :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

A note of caution...good brakes are so important to safety that if you don't thoroughly understand their function and how to work on them, you should leave it to a professional.

Good Hub!


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

Your info. is well researched and i'm sure many will do this but not me. I guess i'm a chicken, but i do admire anyone who will do this. It is important to save money. Thank you for sharing...


mjkearn profile image

mjkearn 4 years ago

Hi Denise,

WOW, great hub, extensive, comprehensive brake guide. Taught me a few things, great job, voting up,

MJ.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Marlene-well, I certainly missed the WTI from last week, but finally have it posted. I laughed out loud when I read your comments about your husband and his brake dancing. That was good! I shared it with my friend Glen and he got a good laugh as well. Thanks for your great comments. :)

Hi TToombs-Thanks for reading and the votes!

Hi Will-Thanks for emphasizing that point...safety needs to be the number one factor, however, it's important for people who are able to do the job not to be intimidated by it. With practice comes proficiency. Thanks for reading.

Hi Ruby, thanks for reading. This one took me several days to pull all the info together in a way that made sense to me...the 'average Joe'. I agree...I would NOT do my own brakes, but more because of my age in handling the tools, getting the parts on tight enough etc. Many years ago I would have been more interested and more capable of doing it. I take my brake work, and any of my car needs, to Glen the mechanic, LOL.

Hello mjkearn-thanks for your enthusiastic comments. I'm glad you found it useful. :)


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois

Dee, this is an excellent hub. I appreciate the vocabulary and chart you included. I think they really added to and clarified the info you provided. Having lots of pictures helped too.

While I'm not sure I'd attempt to do this myself, I think that just reading it will give people a better understanding of the mechanics of their car's braking system and that's important. Then the driver knows when something might be amiss.

Did I ever tell you the story of how dad and I changed my brakes in an old Ford Galaxy 500 I had? I was tasked with putting the tire back on. Didn't do a good enough job I guess b/c I was out cruising with Sue one night and the tire came off! Fortunately no one hurt and no real damage to the car.


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

This is a great how-to for anyone wanting to attempt changing their brakes! My husband has always done the mechanical work on our cars. While I really don't want to attempt this, I'm thinking it would be a great hub for our grandsons to read as they learn to maintain their own vehicles! Good job, voted up and useful!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Danette-I never heard that story of you changing the tire! OMG, haha. Well, I'm glad you found the hub interesting.

Hi Stephanie-thanks for the feedback. I agree-too much for me right now, but grandsons-yeah, that's the ticket.

Thanks for the vote up. :)


cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

Really thorough hub! I love the table with all of the information in it. This is a wonderful guide for anyone is feels confident in their ability to change their own brakes. Nicely done!


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

very good hub.. although I do my own brake changes.. this is very useful thanks for the wonderful, useful, detailed, and easy to follow hub voted up and useful :) FRank


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Cara-thanks for the feedback. You're lucky that your husband has such confidence around car maintenance. :)

Hi Frank-thanks for your comments. Glad to know that someone who has the practice and expertise of the DIY brake change finds it 'easy to follow'. :) I appreciate your feedback.


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

I think the best use for this hub is to arm the naïve car owner with the information to interact intelligently with a brake shop about what they recommend and intend to do. The shops tend to push far too much over on the unsuspecting motorist. My 89-yr-old dad was charged $900+ last month for far more brake work than he probably needed.

No DIY mechanic should be turning their own rotors. Anyone with a lathe would know the rest of the procedure anyway. But like I said, this is a good overview for someone to be able to supervise what the professionals are doing to their car.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Howard-thanks for the feedback. It is sad when companies take advantage of consumers.


b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 4 years ago

Wow Girlfriend, how did you get so SMART. Wonderful and so Informative, but, I'll leave it up to the Professionals. Right now my 10 year old PT Cruiser needs a new Computer...I'm still Laughing that we were able to drive home from Florida, but now, I'm not pressing my Luck, she goes for her "Operation" next week! Great Read!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi B-I smiled at your comment. My grandfather owned and operated a service station in Detroit, so I grew up being very familiar and comfortable around car care. Along with that...my longtime, very good friend is a mechanic (interviewed here) and was patient with my questions and photography shoot in his shop, haha.

Many blessings on a successful operation, hee hee. Thanks for reading.


StephenCowry profile image

StephenCowry 4 years ago

I once had trouble with car brake and I did not know what to do! You've actually mentioned here a lot of safety things to do to change a brake. Never done it myself, I wish I could do it on my own without calling for a technician.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Stephen, thanks for sharing your experience. Nice to meet you. :) I'm lucky that my friend does my brakes for me cuz he is a mechanic.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Easy if you're handy, which I'm not. I shouldn't try any car repairs considering that it was my wife, not me, who recently figured out the our toilet seat was out of kilter because a couple of screws were loose. Your excellently researched, written, and presented hub makes me even more grateful than before for all the skilled and fair dealing auto mechanics of the world.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi B. I can understand your reluctance to attempting something as necessary and important as a brake change. I'm fortunate that my friend does it for me. My grandfather owned a garage in Detroit during the Depression and being more 'mechanical' than not trickled down to me. But, I would not feel comfortable doing my brakes. Thanks for reading.


Casimiro 4 years ago

Certainly, anyone handy with tools should be able to follow this detailed hub to replace their own brake pads. Knowing if the drums or discs need to be re-surfaced is a little trickier. If there is any kind of problem with the ABS system then you really need a mechanic who has the proper diagnostic equipment. At the very least, however, after reading this hub one can talk intelligently with their shop about what needs to be done. Thanks for an excellent job on this hub!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Casimiro-thanks for your feedback and comments. It's a good thing I know a mechanic who is good, honest and has all of the equipment to do my brakes. :)


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Great hub Denise! I'll have you know that Bev taught me how to do this; she has been doing her own brakes for about ten years, and now I can do it as well. It really is quite simple!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

WOW! I am SO impressed with Bev. That is way cool! And, now you can do it too-double cool. :) Thanks for reading and commenting, Bill.


molometer profile image

molometer 3 years ago

Great hub with excellent advice and tips.

I'll put a link to this, on my hub on brake safety.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 3 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi molometer, thanks for the link. Yours is linked here as well. :)

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