Do-It-Yourself Brake Job

With a few basic tools and a free day, you can save a bundle on labor.

Though late-model cars have fewer user-serviceable parts under the hood (and engine bays crammed to the gills), replacing disc brakes is still a project most DIYers can complete. Changing brake pads and rotors on all four wheels takes about a day. The process is the same for most cars; you’re basically just disassembling and reassembling the calipers and replacing the rotor. You’ll need new pads and rotors, some brake cleaner, a set of wrenches and screwdrivers, a jack and a jack stand. In addition, a breaker bar or impact wrench will help with stubborn lug nuts.

1. Before you start jacking up your car and crawling around on the ground, you’ll want to make sure all parts are ready to install. Open up the new rotors and thoroughly clean each with brake cleaner to remove any residual oil (used to protect them from rust during shipping). Open the new pads and make sure both pads and retention clips are included for each wheel. We’ll start with the front driver’s side wheel; you’ll simply repeat the steps for each remaining wheel.

2. Put the car in park, engage the parking brake, chock the wheels remaining on the ground and loosen the lug nuts on the wheel you’ll be changing.

3. Jack up the car near the wheel and lower the frame onto the jack stand. Leave the jack in place even after the jack stand is supporting the car’s weight; in this case, redundancy enhances safety.

4. Remove the wheel. If you have trouble, a few careful strikes with a dead-blow mallet should help to loosen it.

5. Remove the brake-caliper frame by taking out the bolts that hold it in place, making sure to keep the brake lines supported. You can use a piece of strong wire bent into an S-shape to hang the frame inside the wheel well while you work.

6. Next, remove the old brake pads — you may need to carefully pry them off using a screwdriver. Then loosen the mounting bolts on the slider frame and remove.

7. Pry off the old retaining clips. Use a wire brush to scrape away any buildup on the slider frame and clean up the rest of the piece. Water often gets under the retaining clips, causing rust buildup. Once you’ve cleaned up the frame, you can spray paint it with black enamel to prohibit rust (make sure it’s dry before you reinstall).

8. Remove the rotor and replace it with a new rotor. The rotor may be held on by an extra screw or pin. A dead-blow mallet will help to loosen the rotor if it’s rusted in place.

9. Depress the brake cylinder using a brake-pad spreader (or a C-clamp) with an old pad against the cylinder.

10. Put new clips in the slider frame and reattach; then insert new pads. Slide the caliper over the new pads and slider, lubricate the slider pins and reattach the mount. If there’s not enough clearance, you may need to depress the brake cylinder further.

11. Once you’ve reassembled the entire brake system, clean the rotor to make sure all dust and debris are removed; then reattach the wheel, remove the jack stand and lower the car. With the wheel back on the ground, tighten the lugs to the manufacturer-specified torque; then repeat the process on the other side of the car.

Once the front brakes are complete, take a low-speed test drive to make sure everything is functioning. When you first depress the brake pedal, it will feel like there’s no braking pressure, but depressing a second time will reset the master brake cylinder, and braking should feel normal again. If you’re going to replace the back brakes, this test drive will reset the brakes and return the brake fluid and master cylinder level to normal; then you can repeat the steps for the back brakes. Afterward, be sure to take another test drive before hitting the open road.