If your brakes have been giving you trouble recently, you might be inclined to change your brake pads. After all, brake pads are a consumable item, a wear part that inevitably requires replacement eventually. Some brakes will need to be changed more frequently, depending on the driver.1 The question is, are brake pads easy to change? And perhaps more importantly, should you tackle this repair yourself?
The long and short of it is that yes, brake pads are easy to change. But that doesn’t always mean this is a repair you should tackle. Sometimes your brakes require more work than just a quick pad replacement. If you’re unfamiliar with the braking system – which includes rotors, calipers, brake fluid, and other important parts – you might want to think twice about doing this repair yourself. After all, brakes are about the last thing you want to screw up if you don’t feel comfortable wrenching on your car.
If you’re still game for trying this repair yourself, keep reading. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about changing your pads – and help you determine when it might be good to bring your car to a professional. First things first, though– deciding whether or not it’s time for new brake pads.
How Do I Know If I Need New Brake Pads?
Image courtesy of Pixabay
There are a number of telltale signs that can suggest you need new brake pads, but by far the most important to recognize is the noise that occurs when pads have been completely worn down.
Brake pads, no matter how advanced the material with which they’re made, 2 are manufactured with audible wear indicators to inform the driver that the pads are about due for replacement. When the pads reach a minimum usable thickness – usually around two millimeters – these metal indicators begin making contact with the rotor. The resulting screech is loud enough to hear from inside the cabin and will occur every time the brakes are depressed. The ugly sound is telling you to start shopping for new brake pads.
If you ignore the screeching for too long, you’ll eventually wear through the entire surface of the brake pad. At that point, the pads’ backing plates will be coming into contact with the bare metal of the rotor surface – a quick way to necessitate (expensive) new rotors and calipers. To avoid undue damage to your brakes and unnecessary repair costs, service your brakes as soon you notice any unusual noise or behavior.
If some of these terms seem unfamiliar, check out our article on whether brake pads are the same as brakes. There you’ll find an in-depth explanation of how the braking system works – something you’ll want to know before you begin trying to work on your brakes.
How Do I Change My Brake Pads?
There are a few steps you’ll want to go through in order to change your brake pads. Let’s consider each step individually:
1. Determine which pads need changing.
The most important thing is to determine which pads need changing, as all four brake pads rarely wear out at once. Typically, your front brakes wear faster due to the weight of the engine as well as the nosedive that braking induces.
To isolate which pads need changing, listen to see if the sound of the wear indicators appears to be coming from the front or the rear of the car. If you can’t figure it out by ear yourself, it might help to persuade a friend to volunteer their services. As they stand beside the car, you can begin to accelerate and then quickly apply the brakes. The friend can help pinpoint if the screech of the wear indicators is coming from the front or back wheels.
2. Loosen the lug nuts and lift the vehicle.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Once you’ve determined which brake pads need changing, it’s time to raise the vehicle and prepare for the repair. This is easier than it sounds. Getting your two-ton car off the ground is an exercise in prudence and personal safety; there are far too many sobering reports out there of fatal accidents due to improperly-raised vehicles falling off the jack or jack stands.
O-Reilly’s Auto Parts has a great video on YouTube about safely jacking up your car, but here’s the short of it: Park your vehicle on a level surface that’s ideally paved with concrete or asphalt. Put the car in park (or first gear in the case of a manual). Apply the emergency brake and chock the two wheels that will remain on the ground.
At this point, you might feel ready to position the jack and get your car in the air. If so, you’d be overlooking one crucial step: loosening the lug nuts. If you don’t loosen the lug nuts while the car is on the ground, the lack of resistance will prevent you from breaking them loose. You need to be able to apply serious leverage on the lug nuts with your breaker bar or tire iron in order to loosen them, something you wouldn’t be able to do if the tire is hanging off the ground.
With your lug nuts loosened, you can now position the saddle of the jack – the part that actually lifts the car – so that it is underneath the manufacturer’s recommended lifting point. Now begin jacking up the vehicle. You may want to consider an electrical modification to allow this step to go a bit more smoothly.3
Once the car is sufficiently raised, position your jack stands. Now lower the jack until the frame of the car is touching the jack stands. To ensure the car is secure, give the car a few strong shoves. If sitting properly, the car shouldn’t budge. If you feel any sort of instability when you push on your car immediately get the car off the stands so you can reposition them.
3. Remove the Wheels and Calipers
Image courtesy of Pixabay
With the car secured, you can finish removing the loosened lug nuts and finally remove the wheel from the hub. Now you should be looking at your rotor and caliper.
The first step you’ll want to take is to remove your brake caliper. Two bolts on the back secure most calipers to the rotors, so you’ll want to have your socket set handy. Once those two bolts are removed, the caliper should want to slide right off the rotor.
At this point, the hydraulic brake line will be the only thing tethering the caliper to the car. Don’t let the caliper hang freely by this line – damaging the brake line is a far more difficult job than replacing brake pads. See if you can hook the caliper to the spring or otherwise use an old hangar or bit of wire to jerry-rig some sort of support for it.
4. Replace the Brake Pads
With the caliper out of the way, you’ll see the bracket that seats the caliper as well as the old brake pads. These pads should slip or pop right out, but be careful – you don’t want to damage anything. Coax them out with your fingers (while wearing gloves) rather than using a flathead screwdriver or pry tool to force them out. Using such a tool could result in accidentally gouging the rotor.
With the old pads out, pop in the new pads, ensuring they’re following the same orientation as the old ones. Now put the caliper back.
You’ll likely find that the caliper won’t fit over the new pads. Don’t panic – that’s normal. Using a C-clamp or a specialized brake tool, you can force the caliper to open a bit wider to fit over the new pads.
Once the caliper is on tight, everything else is a reversal of the steps covered here. Tighten up the caliper, put the wheel on, hand-tighten the lug nuts, and lower the car. And that’s it – you’re good to go. You should look into whether or not your local recycling center or mechanic will take your old brake pads for recycling.4
If you want a visual to accompany this write-up, this video by Lifehacker should help answer any lingering concerns or questions.
Other Things to Consider
While replacing brake pads isn’t hard, you should consider whether other brake work is necessary as well. Rotors and brake fluid are also “wear-parts” that need to be regularly inspected and occasionally replaced; brake lines and master cylinders are also known to fail on older vehicles.
Changing any of these parts yourself isn’t a task for the faint of heart. New brake fluid, for instance, requires proper bleeding of the brake lines to remove any air; do it wrong and your stopping power is drastically impaired. We won’t even get into brake lines and master cylinders.
Before you tackle your pads, determine if you need additional repairs or maintenance as well. If so, it might be better to go to a shop, where professionals with professional tools can quickly and accurately do the required work on your vehicle. For anything more than brake pads, the money you’ll pay them may be worth the peace of mind that comes with a job getting done right.
Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
- Peng Zhang, Lin Zhang, Peifang Wu, Jingwu Cao, Cairang Shijia, Dongbin Wei, Xuanhui Qu,
Effect of carbon fiber on the braking performance of copper-based brake pad under continuous high-energy braking conditions. Wear. Volumes 458–459. 2020. 203408. doi: 10.1016/j.wear.2020.203408
- P.V. Gurunath, J. Bijwe, Friction and wear studies on brake-pad materials based on newly developed resin, Wear, Volume 263, Issues 7–12, 2007, Pages 1212-1219, doi: 10.1016/j.wear.2006.12.050
- Akinwonmi AS, A. Mohammed. Modification of the existing design of a car jack. 12 Aug 2012. 3(4). Aug 2012.
- Lyu Y, Ma J, Åström AH, Wahlström J, Olofsson U. Recycling of worn out brake pads ‒ impact on tribology and environment. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):8369. Published 2020 May 20. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-65265-w