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DIY Everything: How to Change Your Brakes and Rotors

Since we all seem to be finding ourselves with a little more time on our hands for the next few weeks, and more and more reasons to reduce spending where possible, some of us might be looking at what DIY repairs and upgrades can be done at home with common hand tools. I already went over some DIY upgrade projects, but I figured I’d get into the details on a few common maintenance items as well, starting with DIY brake pad and rotor replacement.

What you’ll likely need:

  • A socket and/or wrench set
  • A lug wrench or breaker bar
  • A jack of some sort (preferably a floor jack, but your factory included jack will work)
  • Jack stands
  • A c-clamp or brake piston compressor tool (can be rented at an auto parts store)
  • A wire clothes hanger or bungee chord or something to support the caliper with
  • Wire brush
  • Wheel chocks (You can use bricks, blocks of wood, big rocks, etc)
  • The brake pads and rotors
  • Antiseize

Basic steps for most vehicles with disk brakes:

Step 1: Loosen the lug nuts while the car is still on the ground. With the parking brake on and the wheels chocked, break the lug nuts or bolts loose before jacking the car up. Get them loose enough that you can use a normal ratchet on them after you raise the car.

Step 2: Raise that sucker up and remove the wheels. Jack the vehicle up from the manufacturer’s recommended jacking point depending on if you’re working on the front or rear. I recommend just jacking up one side at a time so you still have the other three wheels on the ground. Rest the vehicle’s frame rails, load-bearing pinch seams, or jacking point on your jack stand(s) at this time. Now you can loosen the lugs the rest of the way and pull the wheels off. Now is also a great time to clean brake dust off your wheels.

Step 3: Loosen the caliper. There will likely be two bolts on the backside of the caliper to remove, you can use a socket or open-ended wrench here. The caliper should slide right out after these are removed, but can sometimes be a little stubborn. Once you’ve made sure you have all the bolts out that are holding it on, you may need to use a flathead screwdriver or pry bar to break it free. With the caliper off, it’s important to support it with a hanger, bungee cord, or zip ties to keep strain off the brake line. Find some place in the suspension to hang it from, like a rung of the coil spring or the top of the strut assembly.

Step 3.5: You might need to remove the caliper carrier if you’re changing rotors. Once the caliper is removed, most vehicles will need the caliper carrier out of the way in order to slide the rotors off. This should typically be another two bolts on the back of the assembly, these will likely be tougher to get out, so using a breaker bar with a rubber mallet might help break the bolts loose.

Step 4: Remove the rotor. If the rotor doesn’t slide off freely, be aware that some rotors have a locating screw holding them in place that will need to be removed. If this isn’t the case for yours and it still won’t slide off, you may need to “motivate” it with a rubber mallet. Sometimes a bit of rust against the hub/axle can hold rotors firm.

Step 5: Slide the new rotor on and put the caliper carrier back on. If your hub is a little rusty/dirty, it’s not a bad idea to take a wire brush to it in order to strip that layer of corrosion away. You can hit the hub with a little WD40 at this time to help prevent the rotor sticking in the future. With the rotor installed, now is a good time to bolt the carrier back down, tightening with a breaker bar.

Step 6: Compress the caliper. Using a c-clamp, place one of the old brake pads back in the caliper and slowly clamp the pad against the piston, compressing it until the piston is flush with the rest of the assembly. It’s a good idea to pop your hood and watch the brake fluid reservoir during this process in case the reservoir becomes too full. If the fluid reaches the top of the reservoir, you may need to siphon some out (shouldn’t be needed unless brake fluid was added since the last brake job). Inspect the caliper piston boots for tears before reinstalling anything, if there is a leak, you’ll need to replace the caliper at this time.

Step 7: Install the pads and caliper. When you install the pads in the carrier, put a little bit of anti-seize on any surface where the pad will make contact with the carrier and caliper. It’s also not a bad idea to put a little anti-seize on the surface of the piston where it will make contact with the pad. This helps prevent noise under operation. Slide the caliper in place over the pads, put a little anti-seize along the smooth end shaft of the caliper bolts, and then bolt the caliper to the carrier.

Step 8: Reinstall the wheels. Put the wheels on and put on the lug nuts/bolts hand-tight. Then you can remove the jack stands and lower the car back down on its tires before snugging down the lugs with a breaker bar or preferably a torque wrench to the factory spec that you can find in your owner's manual.

Step 9: Pump the brakes to regain pressure in the system. In order to pressurize the calipers to readjust for the new pads, you need to pump the brakes 3-5 times in order to fully regain pressure and proper pedal feel.

Step 10: Bed your pads. I have a full write-up here on how to bed in your brake pads and why, but here is the important part:

While we’re all social distancing, you might find that there are a good number of DIY repairs and upgrades that you can do yourself. With as complicated as modern cars have become, there are still plenty of maintenance items that can be done pretty easily with a little bit of knowledge, patience, and some good ol’ elbow grease.