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How to fix your car's own brakes

Read Cars logo Read Cars 14/09/2017 Scott Huntington
© DriveCars

Whether your brakes are squeaking or the wheels won’t stop spinning, fixing your brakes can be an intimidating proposition.

There are lots of parts, not to mention a whole hydraulic system to contend with, and what exactly does bleeding your brakes mean?

Not to worry — we’ve got you covered. While this might not fix every problem, here’s a basic guide to walk you through fixing your brakes.

What type of brakes do you have?

Depending on the type of vehicle you drive, you’ll have one of two different types of brakes — disc or drum brakes.

Disc brakes are typically found in the front of most newer cars and, often, on all four wheels for larger cars and trucks. They work by pressing the brake pads down onto a spinning disc to slow the wheel when the brake is pressed.

© Provided by Fresh Press Media Drum brakes, on the other hand, press outward. The brake pads are inside the drum and press against the interior of the steel drum to slow the car when the brake pedal is pressed.

For either type of brakes, you’re going to start by jacking up your car, placing it on jack stands and removing the tyres where you’ll be replacing the brake pads (for disc brakes) or shoes (for drum brakes).

Replacing disc brake pads

First, pop your hood and locate your brake master cylinder. It will usually be near the firewall on the driver’s side and will have a cap that says something about brake fluid. Pop the cap off.

Now you should see the disc rotor and the caliper which holds the brake pads. Remove the caliper by first loosening the bleeder screw and removing the flex hose. You might want to use a tray to catch any brake fluid that might leak from the hose. Then remove the bolts that are holding the caliper to the assembly and pull it free.

Note — you can do this without removing the brake fluid line if you don’t want to do that. However, if you do that, don’t let the caliper hang from the hose.

© Provided by Fresh Press Media

Your brake pads sit inside the pistons in the caliper — simply remove the old ones and press the new ones into place.

While you’ve got the caliper off, do a visual inspection of your brake rotor. Is it showing any signs of unusual wear and tear? If so, you may want to have it turned — car speak for having small amounts of metal shaved off to even the surface of the rotor. If it is too worn to be turned, is showing dangerous amounts of wear or is too thin to be turned, you will need to replace the rotors.

Now, it’s time to put everything back together in reverse order. You will have to press the caliper pistons with the brake pads attached to allow you to slip the caliper back onto the rotor. If you didn’t remove the flex hose, this is where that open master cylinder comes in handy — it relieves the pressure on the hydraulic brake system to make the calipers move easier when you press them by hand.

Bolt everything into place and replace the flex hose if you removed it. Under the hood, remove as much of the old brake fluid as you can with a turkey baster.

Now it’s time to put your master cylinder cap back on and bleed the brakes. This is to remove old brake fluid from your lines and ensure that there are no air bubbles that could compromise your brake system. First, you’ll need a brake fluid bleeder. This puts pressure on the system to draw the old fluid and any air bubbles out of the brake lines. If you don’t have one, you can make one with a pump sprayer and a few fittings and hose clamps.

Simply loosen the bleeder screw on each wheel and pay attention to the fluid that’s coming out of the screw — once it runs clear, tighten the screw and move on to the next wheel.

Once you’re done bleeding the brakes, put your wheels back on, and you’re all done!

Replacing drum brake shoes

© Provided by Fresh Press Media If you drive a newer car, you probably won’t even need this section — drum brakes are most often found in older models. You may still find them in some heavy duty trucks, but it really depends on the manufacturer.

Drum brakes are similar to disc brakes in a lot of ways. They run on the same hydraulic system and rely on that pressure to stop your wheels. Switching out your brake shoes in a drum brake system starts out the same too — jack up the car and take off the tyres.

Under the tyre, you’ll see a large steel drum. It may be resting on the wheel lugs, or it may be held on with screws, depending on your car’s individual setup. Once you’ve pulled the drum off, you’ll see two brake shoes that look like large semi-circles, as well as a wheel cylinder and some springs in the center. Before you go any further, take a picture of this set up with your cell phone. While not strictly necessary, this makes it easier to get all the springs and other extraneous pieces back in place when you’re done.

Now, you need to remove the brake shoes. Some are held in place only by the springs, while you might find some held in place with pins or washers. Detach the springs and remove any applicable pins, and pull the shoes away from the brake assembly.

© Provided by Fresh Press Media Now is a good time to inspect the wheel cylinder for leaks and any signs of abnormal wear and tear. Inspect the inside of the brake drum too — you can get it turned just like your brake rotors for disc brakes, or you can replace them if they’re too worn to be turned.

Once that’s done, simply reassemble in reverse order. Use that picture you took at the beginning to make sure everything is in the correct place, and then replace the drum. You will need to adjust the brake shoes so they press properly against the inside of the drum. You should barely be able to turn it by hand — then back the adjustment off 12 notches until there is little to no drag on the shoes when you spin the drum.

Now, put the wheel back on. Voila, you’re done!

Don’t let replacing your brakes intimidate you — and don’t spend your money having it done by a professional when you can get everything done in your driveway in a couple of hours!


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