How to Fix Your Brakes

Alex Palmeri
January 13, 2017
Average Repair Cost & Time
Avg. Repair Time
90 minutes
Difficulty Level

Replacing the disc brake pads and rotors ”‹is a job that can be performed by intermediate do-it-yourselfers with a moderate amount of experience. This is not a job for beginners as there are safety related issues that can arise from performing the job incorrectly. It is important to consider that, once the repair is underway, more significant wear or damage might present itself and require work beyond the scope of this article. The repair may also require bleeding the hydraulic brake fluid system.

Some mechanics recommend simply swapping the old brake pads for new ones. Referred to as "pad-slapping," this method is not recommended. At minimum, the rotors should be machined and resurfaced before installing new brake pads. But most brake rotors on today's vehicles are too thin to machine. It has become routine — and surprisingly cost-efficient — to replace the rotors along with the pads.

The repair steps found here include replacement of both the rotors and the pads. Make sure to allocate time during the repair to have the rotors machined by your local parts supplier if they are not being replaced. The procedures will be similar for most makes and models on the road.

Finally, in order to complete this repair it will be necessary to lift and support the vehicle with a jack and jack stands. Failure to follow safe lifting practices can lead to serious injury or fatality.

Parts & Tools Required

Here is a list of basic tools, materials, and parts that you will need:

  • Rotors
  • Brake Pads
  • Brake Hardware Kit
  • Floor Jack and Pair of Jack Stands
  • ½" Socket Set and Ratchet
  • Breaker Bar
  • Torque Wrench
  • Brake Piston Compressor (or large C-Clamp)
  • Wire Brush
  • Large Hammer (3-4 lb.)
  • Pry Bar or old Flat Screwdriver for prying
  • Optional: ½" Pneumatic Impact Wrench
  • Copper Anti-Seize Lubricant
  • Silicone Brake Lubricant
  • Thread Locker
  • Cotton Rags or Paper Towels

Before You Begin

Before you begin repairs, it is wise to follow a few basic safety precautions. While this job does not require a lot of tools, it is important that you make sure to use the proper tools to prevent injury to yourself — or damage to your car. Use personal protective equipment such as a pair of gloves to protect your hands. Shield your eyes with safety glasses or goggles. And be aware of anyone who might be in the area of your repairs.

Some late model cars are equipped with anti-lock brake systems that remain energized even when the vehicle is not running. Do not attempt any disassembly of the brake system on a vehicle with this type of system without first deactivating the brake system by locating and removing the fuse that provides power to the ABS. Otherwise, the brakes can actuate on their own and cause serious injury, or damage to the calipers.

Since you will be lifting the vehicle off of the ground, make sure that your vehicle is on a solid, flat surface. Put the vehicle in park and set the parking brake. Place a wheel chock or wood block behind a rear tire to further prevent the vehicle from rolling while you lift it off the ground.

A professional technician knows to never crawl under a lifted vehicle unless it is resting firmly on a pair of jack stands! Identify the manufacturer's recommended lift points in your vehicle owner's manual. You will also need to locate alternate lift points under the vehicle. Look for sturdy frame components or suspension crossmembers, as opposed to sheet metal body panels.

Please read and understand this Legal Disclaimer.

Once you have ensured your safety, and the vehicle is in position for repairs, you are ready to begin.

Lift the Car with a Jack and Jack Stands

Using a breaker bar and socket, loosen — but do not remove — all of the lug nuts.

It was not mentioned in the video, but if you have access to a pneumatic impact wrench you can skip this step and remove the wheel when the vehicle is off the ground.

To raise the entire front end of the car at once, locate a solid lift point underneath the front of the vehicle (suspension crossmember, etc.). If you cannot find a suitable lift point in the center, raise one corner of the car.

Place a jack stand under the recommended lift point(s) or under a sturdy frame member and slowly lower the vehicle onto the stands.

It is important that you place the jack stand under the vehicle using only your arm to prevent serious injury in the event that the hydraulic jack fails!

Leave the jack in place and in contact with the vehicle as an added safety measure. Remove the lug nuts with a ratchet (or impact wrench) and set them aside with the wheel. Place the wheel under the rocker panel for added safety. Turn the steering wheel all the way to one side to expose the brake caliper and to make removal easier.

Remove the Caliper, Caliper Bracket, and Rotor

Using a breaker bar, loosen the two caliper bolts. Remove them the rest of the way with a ratchet.

Make note if there is any residue on the bolt threads that might indicate if thread lock was used.

Separate the caliper from the caliper bracket using your pry bar to work it free. It is important to suspend the caliper using wire or a bungee cord to prevent strain on the hydraulic hose - do not just let it hang.

Check the caliper bolts/slide pins for corrosion or wear. Clean or replace as necessary. Slide the old brake pads out of the caliper brackets.

Use your breaker bar to loosen the two caliper bracket bolts and remove them the rest of the way with a ratchet. Check for evidence of thread lock on the bolts. Remove the caliper bracket from the steering knuckle and set it aside.

Some vehicle models require new bolts to be installed on bracket.

Remove the old brake rotor. The rotor may resist coming off due to corrosion on the back side. Use a large hammer to smack the face of the rotor, turning the rotor as you go. Avoid damaging the wheel studs with your hammer. The rotor should break free.

The rotor may be held in place with a retaining screw. Make sure to remove the screw before attempting to remove the rotor. The video did not point this out, but the retaining screw often requires a No. 3 Phillips screwdriver. A smaller screwdriver will cause the screw head to round off. If the retaining screw refuses to turn, you can use a hand impact driver to break it loose. Even a good whack with a screwdriver and a hammer might do the trick.
Clean and Inspect the Wheel Hub and Caliper

With the rotor out of the way, clean any corrosion on the wheel hub with a wire brush or sandpaper. Spray it with brake cleaner and wipe dry with cotton rag or paper towel. Clean the caliper bracket in the same way.

A professional technician doesn't leave anything to chance. Torque all fasteners to manufacturer's recommendations and use thread lock where indicated.

The new rotor comes with a protective coating of oil from the manufacturer. Use brake cleaner to remove the oil from both sides before installing the new rotor. Once it has been thoroughly cleaned, set the new rotor on the wheel hub and hold it in place with one of the lug nuts (or the retaining screw). Install the caliper bracket. Start both bolts before tightening either one to prevent cross-threading.

Inspect the caliper piston. Clean any residue on the edge of the piston with a rag soaked in brake cleaner to prolong the life of the caliper. Be careful not to soak the rubber bushings with cleaner. Also, check the level of the brake fluid in the fluid reservoir. If the level is high, you may need to remove some of the fluid before you compress the caliper.

Reinstall the Brake Rotor, Caliper Bracket, and Caliper

Next, using one of the old brake pads and a caliper piston compressor (or a large c-clamp), compress the piston back into the caliper slowly and steadily until the piston bottoms out. Do not force the piston — the fluid can back up into the master cylinder and overflow. Another option is to loosen the bleeder screw located on the caliper to relieve the fluid pressure while compressing the caliper. Make sure to contain the fluid that is released from the bleeder. Some calipers require a special tool that rotates the piston rather than compressing it — usually on rear disc brake systems.

Remove and replace the old brake hardware clip(s) with new ones. Use copper anti-seize lubricant on the surfaces where the new brake pads come in contact with the caliper bracket. Also, apply anti-seize to the new clips and to the back sides of the brake pads.

Do not allow anti-seize to contaminate the surface of the brake pads!

Now insert the brake pads into the caliper bracket. Clean the caliper guide pins and coat them with silicone lubricant.

Set the caliper in place over the pads and insert the caliper bolts. Again, use thread lock where there is evidence of prior use and torque fasteners to specifications.

Reinstall the wheel and hand-tighten all the lug nuts.

Repeat the procedure on the other side of the vehicle.

Lower the Car, Torque the Lugs, and Pump the Brakes

When both sides are complete, raise the vehicle off of the jack stands, remove the stands, and lower the vehicle until the tires touch the ground. Torque the lug nuts to the manufacturer's specification in a "star" pattern using a torque wrench. Lower the vehicle fully and remove the jack.

Start the vehicle and pump the brakes several times to build up pressure in the braking system. Check the brake fluid level again and top off if necessary. Follow up by taking your vehicle for a test drive to ensure that the brakes are in proper working order.

Alex Palmeri

About the Author

Alex Palmeri worked nine years as a master technician at Mercedes-Benz of Chicago and is currently the foreman at a large fleet garage. He writes about automotive news, maintenance and racing, and runs a YouTube channel called Legit Street Cars.

2 User Comments

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By , March 07, 2017
Any recommendations on how to evaluate parts quality? I've heard that lower quality brakes squeak, and I'd like to keep my commute into work as quiet as possible, so the swearing I do when I hit the inevitable potholes can be heard clearly.
By , March 07, 2017
This is great detailed information. I learned a lot about brakes. I also learned I never want to attempt to do this or even have my friend that says he can do it do this for me.