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How to Change Your Car’s Brakes

You have lots of options when your vehicle’s brake pedal gets squishy. Learn how to change your car’s brakes.

Slowing You Down to a Stop

Multiple vehicles with brake lights on
Multiple vehicles with brake lights on

We could argue that your braking system is the most crucial safety feature on your car. Without brakes you’d only have time, distance, aerodynamics, and tire friction as the only things that will slow your vehicle down.

The ability of four discs and pads to repeatedly stop a 4000 lb car is a technological feat we take for granted each day. How exactly do brakes work? And if there’s a problem with them, can I repair them myself? We’ll answer both of these questions as we take a look at car brakes and how to change them.

How Car Brakes Work

View of rotor through a wheel
View of rotor through a wheel

Before you get into the job, let’s review a quick and essential primer on how the braking system operates. When your car is parked, you can see a silver front disc rotor located inside your front wheel. You’ll also see a brake caliper that houses disc pads on both sides of the disc. When pressing the brake pedal, brake fluid pushes through brake lines to press the brake pads against the disc rotor that gradually or quickly brings your car to a stop.

While slowing the vehicle down, brake pad friction material rubs against the steel disc turning your car’s kinetic energy into heat. How hot? Brake rotors’ temps can reach between 392 degrees Fahrenheit and even up to 1000 degrees if you take your performance vehicle to track days.

New and worn brake pads
New and worn brake pads

This heat and friction from repeated stopping will, over time, wear down your brake pads and rotors until they lose their effectiveness. Stops will become longer, the brake pedal has to be pressed deeper, and you begin to hear a squeal or grinding from the brakes. It’s time to replace the pads.

Preparing to Change Your Car’s Brake Pads

Similar to the process of building a product from IKEA, getting all your tools and supplies in order is essential. We can tell you, from experience, the last thing you want is to be half-way through a brake job and realize you don’t have a 10mm socket.

1. Gather your Tools and Supplies

  • Hydraulic Jack
  • Jack Stands
  • Wooden block
  • Gloves
  • 3/8″ Ratchet
  • 1/2″ Ratchet
  • 1/2″ Breaker Bar
  • 3/8″ extensions
  • 3/8″ Sockets
  • 1/2″ Sockets
  • Open-ended/box wrenches
  • Torx sockets
  • Reverse Torx sockets
  • C-Clamp
  • Brake Cleaner
  • Pry Bar
  • Wire Brush

2. Buy Your Brake Pads And Rotors

When you look for brake pads, you’ll have multiple options. Pads will come in ceramic, organic, and metallic forms. Depending on your needs, ceramic brake pads may be the best option. Here’s a quick look at brake pad options:

Organic Brake Pads - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com
Organic Brake Pads - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com

Organic Brake Pads

These will come standard on most vehicles that are sold in the US. The “organic” designation comes from the materials used in the pad composition. Although there’s not a standard, you’ll find pads made from a combination of Kevlar, carbon, fiberglass, and rubber that’s held together with a resin compound. These pads are very reasonable in price and won’t produce dust like metallic pads that dirty up your wheels.

Ceramic Brake Pad - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com
Ceramic Brake Pad - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com

Ceramic Brake Pads

Made from ceramic similar to what is used to make pottery, ceramic brake pads also have fine copper fibers embedded within them to increase their friction and heat conductivity. They create no sound when the brakes are applied, produce less dust and other particles over time as they wear down, and are reliable in a wide range of temperatures.

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com
Semi-Metallic Brake Pads - Ez Auto Repairs on YouTube.com

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Often referred to as just “metallic brake pads”, these pads comprise 30% to 70% metals, including copper, iron, steel, or other composite alloys. These various metals combine with graphite lubricant as well as other fillers to complete the brake pad. The available metallic brake pad compounds vary. Each offers its advantages for different situations as diverse as daily commutes to track racing.

Regardless of the choices, suppose your car came with organic pads. In that case, it’s best to stay with those because they work with the manufacturers’ warranty. Unless you find yourself in performance applications like track days, organic pads will be fine. How long should brake pads last? Depending on driving conditions, you should look to replace them between 20,000 and 40,000 miles.

Brake pads and rotors
Brake pads and rotors

About Brake Rotors

Unless you are driving a high-performance or heavy towing vehicle, any rotor will do. However, be aware that there are many cheaply made and poorly manufactured rotors available. As in most product purchases, we recommend purchasing from known manufacturers or warranty-supported products. We recommend rotors from EBC, Power Stop, ACDelco, Wagner, Raybestos, or Brembo. It’s also a good idea to check your car manufacturer’s rotors as an option. With today’s competitive parts pricing, dealer parts departments will often have less expensive pricing than a parts store.

Removing lug nuts from tire
Removing lug nuts from tire

3. Loosen the Lug Nuts

Working on one side of the car, loosen the lug nuts while the tires are on the ground. Grab your lug wrench you’ve located in your car tool kit or breaker bar and appropriate socket and rotate the wrench clockwise. It’s going to take a lot of torque, but you can do it. Get the lug nuts loose enough that you can remove them by hand once the car is on the jack stands.

Jacking up a car to work on it
Jacking up a car to work on it

4. Jack Up the Car

Roll the hydraulic jack underneath the frame jack points located behind the front and ahead of the rear wheels. Depending on the car, they’ll either be a dimpled area or reinforced protruded metal piece. Your owner’s manual will show your models’ jack points.

After your car is elevated, so the tires do not touch the ground, go ahead and lock down the floor jack bleeder valve. Slide your jack stands into place near the jack beneath a secure area of the car frame. It would be best only to use the jack to raise the vehicle while jack stands are being put into place. Once the jack stands are in place, slowly open the release valve on the floor jack until the car rests on the jack stands. You can now altogether remove the lug nuts and take off your wheels.

Removing brake caliper
Removing brake caliper

5. Loosen the Brake Caliper

Locate and remove the two brake caliper bolts. They will be either 14mm or 12mm on most cars but be prepared for them to be different. After taking out the bolts, the caliper should be able to slide out. you may need to wiggle the caliper to compress the pads a bit so they’re not tight against the rotor. If needed, use a flat head screwdriver to pry the caliper out.

On some manufacturers, you may only need to take one bolt out and loosen the other. This allows you to rotate the caliper vertically and remove the pads and springs. It’s best to use a wire or bungee cord to secure the caliper to the spring strut or other location. The purpose of this is to prevent putting any strain on the car’s brake line.

6. Remove Caliper Carrier

Some vehicles, like the RAM 1500, will have a carrier that the caliper fits in. If so, locate the bolts that secure the caliper carrier to the hub’s backside and remove them.

Removing vehicle rotor
Removing vehicle rotor

7. Remove Rotor

If you’re the first car owner, the rotors may have a Torx head location bolt that will have to be removed. It’s one bolt that’s usually between two of the studs and easy to see. The bolt was used to keep the rotor on during its trip down the assembly line and no longer needed. After you remove it, you can choose not to reinstall it. The rotors may be rusted to the hub and need some coaxing to be removed on older cars. You can do this with a good-sized hammer whack on the rotor. We’ve found that hitting the rotor on the backside is the most effective technique.

Placing rotor back onto vehicle
Placing rotor back onto vehicle

8. Install New Rotor

Grab your new rotors and give them a good wipe down with some brake cleaner. This is also an excellent time to get any corrosion off the hub if it’s there. It can come off relatively quickly with a wire brush. In some cases, you may need to use a drill and sanding disc. In that case, make sure to use a face mask. Place the rotor on the hub and secure it with two hand tightened lug nuts while reinstalling the other car brake components.

Brake pad and caliper - ChrisFix on YouTube.com
Brake pad and caliper - ChrisFix on YouTube.com

9. Assemble the Caliper Carrier

Position the carrier, replace the bolts and tighten them at 111 lb-ft of torque.

10. Compress Caliper

Remove the brake fluid reservoir cap, being careful not to get debris or water inside it, then grab your C-clamp and one of your old brake pads. Put the pad on the piston/pistons and position your C-clamp so you can compress the pad/piston until it’s flush with the caliper housing.

11. Install Pads and Caliper

Put a thin coat of anti-squeal grease on the pad’s metal side (not the friction side). Install the pads and reinstall the caliper bolts.

Placing tire back onto vehicle
Placing tire back onto vehicle

12. Put on Wheels

While the car is still on the jack stands, place the wheel on the hub and tighten the lugs by hand. Roll your jack under the car and start lifting until your frame clears the jack stands. Carefully remove the jack stands and lower the vehicle to the point that the tires touch the ground. While using a torque wrench, finish tightening the lug nuts. Torque values should be considered when tightening lug nuts. Many manufacturers suggest around 90 lb ft of torque.

Driver's foot on the brake pedal
Driver's foot on the brake pedal

13. Slowly Pump the Brake Pedal

You should feel pressure within three pumps of the pedal. If the pedal continues to go to the floor, you may need to bleed the brake lines of any air.

Driver using vehicle's brakes
Driver using vehicle's brakes

14. Break in Your Pads

Most pads manufacturers will give you a pad break-in sequence, so we recommend you follow that. If it’s not available, a general rule is to Slowly drive to a stretch of road where you can travel safely at 40 mph. Accelerate to 40 and quickly bring the car to a stop. Repeat this three times. Do the same thing from a speed of 60 and brake down to 40. Afterward, you can drive as you usually do because your job is complete.

One Last Note For Your Car Brakes

We’ve given you a general look at brake pad replacement, but your car’s brakes may be different. Before assuming the risks yourself, make sure you consult the appropriate material specific to your vehicle or get an opinion from a professional. Done right, you’ll save hundreds of dollars, gain knowledge and confidence, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

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Steven Mitchell

Steven Mitchell began his automotive journey with a fully restored Triumph TR3B. After earning a bachelor's degree in Marketing and Television from the University of Texas, Steven used his passion for vehicles at an automotive marketing ad agency, and as the Manager of Interactive Marketing for Mitsubishi Motors, eventually winning an Effie for his advertising work. For the past decade, he's been writing car reviews, covering everything from SUVs and electric vehicles to original equipment manufacturer infotainment user interfaces.

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