Brake Pad and Rotor Replacement - Front

Do you need to replace the front brakes on your car, truck or SUV? You came to the right place. We are a group of ASE certified master mechanics which have created this free and easy to follow step by step instruction guide on the replacement of your front brake pads and rotors for both front wheel and rear wheel drive vehicles which use a bearing hub or old style serviceable wheel bearing set ups.

An indication for brake replacement is a squeaking noise when you hit the brakes, a chirping sound when the vehicle is rolling without the brakes being applied or a brake system warning light on which indicates the brake fluid is low. Low brake fluid is an indication of needing brake pads because the fluid displaces the missing pad material in the calipers.

Brake replacement is one of the repair industries most lucrative jobs and if you learn how to do it for yourself, family and friends you can save a considerable amount of money while having the satisfaction of doing the job right.

This guide shows anyone how to do their own brakes use a floor jack, jack stands and basic tools. You will need replacement parts before you begin such as pads, rotors and brake fluid. Most of these parts are pretty inexpensive and can be purchased at Amazon or the local parts store. A word of advice is not the buy the cheapest ones you can find because they tend to squeak and wear out more rapidly.

Check your supplies before you begin, most of the tools you will need are in your dad's or grandfather's garage. If you don't have your own tool set start one, saving money and doing the job yourself while working with your hands is a great value. Let's get started!

Here is a video to help you visualize the brake job basics from the job below. Once you are done watching read the added tips and brake repair basics to do the job right.

Front Brake Pad and Rotor Replacement Guide

This section covers non-serviceable wheel bearing vehicles which are most of what you will find on the road today. We have an added guide to show you how to service the axle bearing correctly if you have an older vehicle.

Tools and Supplies Needed
  • Brake pads
  • Brake rotors
  • Tool set
  • Shop towels
  • Gloves
  • Torque wrench
  • Protective eye wear
  • Large "C" clamp or channel locks
  • Brake fluid
  • Jack stands
  • Hydraulic floor jack
  • Breaker bar or lug wrench
  • Thread lock
  • Wire brush
  • Brake cleaner
  • Brake lube (some pads set include small portion)

Begin with the vehicle on level ground, this helps stabilize the car when it's being lifted, set the emergency brake.

Step 1: Remove the Tire

Before beginning the job the tire must be removed, this can be by first removing the hubcap, lug nut cover or in some applications the lug nuts are exposed and are ready to be removed. You can break both front wheel nut nuts loose but only disassemble and remove one tire at a time.

After breaking the lug nuts loose jack the front of vehicle in the air enough to allow the tires to be off of the ground, support the car safely using jack stands. Learn more on how to jack up your car safety.

Before the car is lifted loosen all lug nuts about 1 full turn, the tire needs to be on the ground at this point to help hold it from rotating. Always push downward on the lug wrench or breaker bar which helps give you leverage by using your body weight. If you try to pull upward you can pull your back out which takes the fun out of the job.

After the lug nuts have been loosened go ahead and lift the car up off the ground and then continue to remove the lug nuts until the tire is loose. Then grasp the tire with both hands and lift off. Once the tire is off lay it flat and slide it under the car for added safety, do not hit the jack stands.

Step 2: Resetting the Caliper

To start, grasp the caliper and turn it outward to gain access to the mounting bolts. Then locate the brake caliper bleeder screw which is toward the top and remove the dust cap. The fluid that is in the caliper is dirty and may contain small metal particulates and rust.

When pushing the piston back into the caliper this contaminated fluid can cause problems for the ABS valve, motor and master cylinder which can cause these components to fail.

This step is to allow the brake fluid that has entered the brake caliper in place of the worn brake pads to be removed. Only remove one caliper and complete the brake replacement on one side at a time.

Use a small wrench, in most cases 10mm, and fit it over the bleed valve. Next attach a piece of rubber tubing or hose over the bleeder valve while the other end of the hose is sitting in a fluid container. Push the wrench counterclockwise to open the valve (rubber tube optional).

Once the bleeder is open use a small pry bar or large flat blade (standard) screw driver and wedge it between the rotor and old brake pad. Then start applying pressure back and forth to widen the gap while pushing the piston back into the caliper, fluid will start to flow from the tube and into the container.

Continue this operation until you cannot push the piston any further back into the caliper. While holding pressure on the piston close the bleeder valve then remove the hose and wrench.

On some calipers is it difficult to get to the rotor and pads in the fashion so this step will need to be done after the caliper has been removed using a large C clamp or channel locks. If channel locks are used install an old pad to help protect the caliper piston.

Next, locate the caliper mounting or slide bolts on the inside of the caliper. The bolt head sizes can either be 14mm, 15mm, 18mm, 8mm hex drive or 35 torx bit in most cases. Use a ratchet or wrench to loosen and remove both bolts by turning them counterclockwise.

You might need an additional wrench to hold the caliper slide from turning but this is not typical. Once removed inspect the condition of the threads and replace them if worn.

Now the caliper will be loose, grasp the caliper and remove it from the brake pads and the caliper mounting bracket. If the caliper has not been retracted you may need to rock the caliper back and forth a little to remove it.

Once the caliper is free from the pads set it securely on the lower control arm, strut bulk head or use a zip tie to hold it out of the way. Be careful not to bend, kink or allow the caliper to hang from the brake flex hose.

Thoroughly inspect brake caliper and brake hose for leakage, cracks or chaffing and replace it if needed.

Step 3: Remove the Brake Pads

After the brake caliper has been removed, grasp the inner and outer pads and slide them outward from the rotor and out of the caliper mounting bracket. You can use a standard screw driver and wedge it between the pads and the rotor to help in the removal.

Sometimes the pads will get stuck on the caliper upon removal which you can then pop them out from the caliper to remove.

Inspect the worn pad and silencer shim, look for uneven wear which is an indication of a seized caliper slide that will need to be serviced. We will show you how to do this later on in this guide.

Step 4: Remove the Caliper Mounting Bracket

The caliper mounting bracket must be removed to replace the brake rotor in most cases. To do this, locate the mounting bolts on the inner part of the bracket. The bolt head size will be larger than the caliper mounting bolts such as 17mm, 18mm or 19mm in most cases. These bolts can be held in with thread lock so make sure the socket or wrench is securely on the bolt head before applying pressure counterclockwise to remove them.

When removing the last bolt, the mounting bracket will become loose so keep your hand on it so it doesn't fall. This bracket will contain the caliper slides which will need to be removed and cleaned before reassembly. These slides help the caliper "float" to ensure that both inner and outer brake pads wear evenly.

Step 5: Replace the Brake Rotor

Some brake rotors are held to the bearing hub with a mounting screw or sheet metal clip on the wheel stud. Use a screwdriver or impact screwdriver to remove the screws. There also may be sheet metal clips that can be removed with a pair of side cutters (dikes).

These mounting screws can be on there pretty tight in which case you must use an impact screwdriver which look like this and is available from Amazon.

While wearing safety goggles, use a hammer and strike the end of the impact screwdriver which will unlock the screw and make it more easily removed. The impact screwdriver has two settings, tighten and loosen so make sure you have it on the correct setting.

After removing any mounting screws or clips the rotor should be loose. Sometimes the rotor can be stuck due to rust and the fact the wheel is tightened against it and the bearing hub. While still wearing safety goggles use a plastic or regular hammer to shock the rotor loose for removal. This can take some force so don't be afraid to give it a good strong strike of a steel hammer.

Once the old brake rotor has been removed, match it to the new rotor, check the outer diameter and mounting offset along with the wheel stud location, they should be an identical match. Some people like to re-machine rotors using a brake lathe, we recommend new ones because the re-machined rotors will have less metal to dissipate heat with which can make them warp. This condition will make the steering wheel shake when you hit the brakes.

It's not a good idea to install new brake pads on an old brake rotor because the braking surface will be uneven and will diminish the brakes ability to stop the car which will make the car pull one way or the other when braking. This is known as "slap pads on it" and is the very cheapest way to do a front bake job.

Use a shop towel and wipe off the mounting surface of the bearing hub and make sure it's free from dirt and grease. This will allow the new rotor to sit squarely on the bearing hub.

Once the old rotor has been matched to the new unit, align the wheel studs and rotor mounting screws. Then slip the rotor onto the bearing hub.

Next, install the rotor mounting screws and tighten. You do not need to use the impact screwdriver to make the screws super tight at this point because the rotor will be held on by the wheel and lug nuts.

Step 6: Service the Caliper Slides

The caliper sides are designed to allow the caliper to "float" while being bolted to the mounting bracket which allows the brake pads to wear evenly. When these slides become stuck due to rust and corrosion the car can pull while braking which causing one pad to wear excessively compared to the opposite pad in the caliper. 

Grasp the slides and pull them outward while twisting, this will help break the dust boot seal loose. Continue to work the slides outward until they come free from the mounting bracket.

If a slide is stuck or seized in the bracket use a vise to hold the bracket and a pair of pliers to work it loose by moving it back and forth while pulling them outward.

Use a shop towel, carburetor or brake cleaner and a wire brush to clean all rust and corrosion from the slides.

Once the slides have been cleaned apply a thin layer of silicone brake lube to both slides. Some slides will have a dampener on one end be sure to not get these mixed up, install them into the hole they came out of.

Install the caliper slides into the caliper mounting bracket with a twisting motion and make sure the slides move easily in the out. If not, remove the slide for more investigation.

These slides can become worn and have groves in them, in which case they will need to be replaced. Slide pin grooves can cause the caliper to "hang" which will create uneven pad wear and braking characteristics.

Before reinstalling the caliper mounting bracket, clean the threads of the bolts by using a small wire brush. Then hand thread in both mounting bolts into the bracket, tighten the bolts evenly to manufacturers specifications which is usually between 70 and 90 foot pounds. A small amount of thread lock can be used to ensure the bolts do not come loose.

Step 7: Install New Brake Pads

Now you are ready to install the new brake pads, begin by inspecting the old brake pads. In the example below you can see the pad "screamer" which is what creates the squeaking or chirping noise when your brake pads are getting low. This safety device is to warn you the brake pads need replacing.

At the upper side of the pad you can see metal which coins the phrase "my brake are metal to metal", meaning the backing plate of the pad which is made of metal is contacting the rotor which is metal as well. When brakes are in this condition the stopping power is greatly compromised.

Compare the old pad to the new unit, pay special attention to the size of the pad's backing plate tang, these are what hold the pad in place. If the tang is too large it will not fit into the caliper mounting plate, and if the tang is too small the pad will rattle and click when driving or stopping. Also the screamer warning tab needs to be in the same place as the old pad when installed back into the mounting bracket.

Match the old pad backing plate size to the new pad. Some new pads have an anti-squeak vibration shim already attached to the back of it so no additional measures to stop brake squeak is needed before installation. In older application an anti-squeak spray or coating was used but usually had little to no effect on stopping brake noise.

In some applications new an anti-rattle clip sets are supplied with the pads. Remove the old retainer clips and install the new ones onto the caliper mounting bracket.

When installing pad anti-rattle clips into the caliper mounting bracket make sure the orientation of the clips are correct.

Install the new pads one at a time, push down on the spring retainer clip and nose the top of the pads inward to rest squarely against the rotor.

This is what it looks like when both pads are correctly installed against the brake rotor, make sure the pads move freely in the bracket with no access play, now the caliper is ready to be reinstalled. The pad with the sensor is usually in the inboard position.

Step 8: Reinstall the Brake Caliper

While holding the caliper slides inward gently set the caliper over the brake pads. If you have difficulty getting the caliper in place double check to make sure the piston is fully retracted into the caliper and the slides are pushed into the mounting bracket. Double check the piston position with a large C clamp or channel locks and push the piston inward.

Once the caliper is successfully over the pads and slides, install both mounting bolts by hand one at a time. Then tighten the bolts to manufacturers torque specification which is usually 35 to 45 foot pounds. Some slides have a hex where a wrench can be used to hold the slides from turning while tightening the bolt. Now completed repeat this brake job procedure for the opposite side of the car.

Step 9: Adding Brake Fluid

Open the hood and locate the brake master cylinder which is usually on the drivers side near the firewall. Use a shop towel and clean the brake master cylinder reservoir and lid to ensure no dirt falls into the fluid, then remove the lid so fluid can be added.

Add brake fluid from a sealed container until the level meets the "FULL" line on the reservoir.

Once the fluid has been installed to its proper level, reinstall the lid and wipe an excess brake fluid with a shop towel. After the brake pedal has been pushed down and proper brake pressure has been obtained, recheck the fluid level and re-add if needed.

Step 10: Push Down On the Brake Pedal Slowly

Double check your work to make sure all bolts are on, and tight. Once completed slowly push the brake pedal downward (the pedal will go to the floor), then allow it back up slowly, never pump the brakes quickly. Repeat this operation until you feel the brake pedal become normal and have pressure, this can take four to six cycles.

This operation is forcing the brake pads to travel to the brake rotors while taking up the air gap between the pad, rotor and caliper piston. Do this until normal brake operation has returned (the brake pedal is in its normal position). Moving the pedal slowly helps prevent air bubbles being trapped in the system which alleviates bleeding. If the pedal seems spongy air is trapped and the system needs bleeding.

Step 11: Reinstall the Wheel

Once the repair job is complete lift the tire onto the wheel lugs and set the tire on. Then, hand thread each of the lug nuts onto the studs and tighten while holding the tire by hand, the lugs will be snug. Once both sides of the brake job are completed lift the car off of the jack stands and remove the stands from underneath the car, lower the jack just too where the tires just touch the ground.

Use a torque wrench to finish tightened the lugs nuts in the star pattern, these nuts should be tightened to manufacturer's specifications which is usually 80 to 100 foot pounds. Reinstall any lug nut covers or hub caps that were previously removed and you are ready for a test drive.

Step 12: Breaking In the Brakes

After a brake service has been performed and the car is safety on level ground, recheck the brake pedal operation. This should be done with the car running and in park to aid the power brake system.

When first using new brakes they will not work as well because they have not been broken in yet, this means the pads have not mated to the rotor. To do this properly take the car for a test drive, use the brakes gently while doing easy stops, then releasing the pedal monetarily and then reapply it while stopping.

This will break in the pads while allowing them to cool and release any brake material disbursed in the process. Repeat this procedure 5 to 7 times at this point the brakes are ready for the open road and the brake pedal operation should be normal.

If you hear any strange noises or the pedal is soft or spongy recheck the job by re-jacking the car up and removing the wheels of inspection or re-bleeding the system. Never continue to drive a car without normal brake pedal operation.

Brake System Facts

Front brakes provide up to 70% of a vehicles stopping power. In general, front brake pads wear out twice as fast as rear brakes, roughly a 2 to 1 ratio on a standard disc-drum brake combination. This will be slightly different on a disc-disc arrangement due to the efficiency of a rear disc brake versus drums.

Disc brakes have an increased braking power advantage over drum/shoe style brakes. Some disc brakes utilize cooling fins in-between the braking surfaces of the rotor to maximize their cooling efficiency.

Replacing brake rotors can vary depending on the make and model of car, two or four wheel drive, front or rear wheel drive. Always replace brake rotors with top quality or OEM (original equipment manufacturer) brake rotors, some less expensive brake rotors can squeak and may not dissipate heat or perform as well because of their inferior metal quality.

The same applies to the brake pads; they should be high quality (OEM) to ensure proper performance. When a grinding brake rotor is neglected, it will cause the brake system to fail due to the separation of the rotor hat (center) from the outer web (braking surface). Additional problems the can occur including the brake pad falling out completely and the brake caliper will blow out a piston, either of these conditions will cause brake failure.

Vehicles brake pads can wear out at different rates depending on design, driving habits, brake pad quality, stop and go traffic and freeway conditions, etc. Hydraulic pressure is supplied to the brake caliper forcing the pads against the brake rotor causing friction to slow the vehicle. Most brake pads have some kind the sensing device that will warn if the brake pads are getting low.

Either a brake warning light, or a noise sensor the will create a high pitched squeal when the pads have worn down beyond manufactures recommendations. Brake service usual occurs between 25,000 and 30,000 miles.

Best Practices
  • Clean and inspect wheel studs, replace if any that are damaged.
  • Inspect the ABS sensor wheel for cracks or damage
  • Bleed the brake system after replacing brake components.
  • Use high quality pads and rotors when replacing brake components.
  • Lubricate caliper slides
  • Clean surface between the rotor and axle flange to ensure proper operation.
  • Slide the tires under the vehicle for added safety while carefully avoiding jack stands.
  • Always perform brake replacements on one wheel at a time to avoid confusion.

We hope we helped you with your brake job and saved you a few dollars in the process. If you have any questions please check out our mechanics forum where we have solutions to thousands of brake problems.

Article first published