I’ve been a mechanic for over two decades, and rotor replacement is one of the most common maintenance jobs. Brake rotor replacement is not a difficult job. A DIYer can easily nail it.
To replace brake rotors, remove the following: Road wheel; Brake caliper; Brake pads; Caliper carrier; Rotor Torx fastener; Rotor. To fit new rotor: Use brake cleaner to remove rotor protective coating; Clean hub interface; Fit new rotor and fastener; Fit caliper carrier; fit new brake pads; Fit caliper; Fit road wheel; and finally, bed in new brakes.
In this staged rotor replacement guide, we’ll replace the front and the rear rotors, and we’ll cover vehicles with manual integrated and EPB rear calipers. But you should know from the get-go that rear rotor replacement is more work than front rotor replacement, but not much.
You’ll learn mechanics tips for ordering new rotors, how to safely work on your car, the tools you’ll need, and of course, the staged replacement process with illustrations.
Mechanics Tip For Buying Brake Rotors
In my two-plus decades of buying and fitting rotors, I have learned that cheap brake components aren’t worth buying. Cheap brake components don’t last the distance and cause other issues such as noise and vibration.
Heat and rotors go hand in hand; after all, that’s the point of rotors and brake pads; they convert kinetic energy into heat, which slows the car. That’s why I like to pay up a little, especially for brake pads and rotors; the problem with cheap rotors is they can’t handle the heat and are quick to warp; once rotors warp, they’re done.
Typical symptoms of warping include brake noise and a pulsation sensation in the brake pedal.
Craking is another serious concern for cheap brake rotors; heating cycles naturally cause the rotor metal to expand and contract, leading to cracking. Symptoms of cracking include brake grab and brake noise.
To help consumers and have a standardized test for rotors, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has approved a test known as the SAE J2928; in this test, rotors are subject to 150 heating cycles, and the metal is tested, both figurately and literally. Quality rotors will meet and exceed SAE specs; they are heat treated to withstand greater heat cycles and are worth the extra money.
We’ll need to buy two rotors as brake components are always fitted in pairs on the same axle; we’ll also need to fit a new set of brake pads.
Top tip, buy the very best rotors and pads the budget will allow; check out the rotor brands I recommend here.
Tools We’ll Need To Replace Rotors
To replace front rotors, we don’t need a ton of tools; you’ll recognize all of them. Rear rotors are a little different that’s because most rear brake components double job; they are also parking brakes, and that means we’ll need some extra tools to manage the parking brake.
Anyhow, I’ll indicate the additional tools needed below to fit the rear rotors.
- Axle stand
- Container for loose fasteners
- Lug nut wrench
- 3/8 inch drive Torx set
- 3/8 inch drive socket set (ideally six point)
- 3/8 drive ratchet (ideally telescopic handle)
- 1/2 inch breaker bar
- 1/2 inch socket set (ideally six point)
- Flat screwdriver long
- Flat screwdriver short
- Wire brush
- Scan tool (rear caliper & rotors with EPB)
- Caliper wind back tool (rear caliper & rotors with integrated manual parking brake)
- Chanel locks
- Bungee cord
- Torque wrench
Supplies needed to fit new rotors include:
- Brake cleaner
- Synthetic grease (rubber safe)
- Copper grease
- 400 grit sandpaper
DIY Front Rotor Replacement Process
Fitting front rotors are by far the most common rotors to replace, and that’s because the front brakes work a ton harder than the rear. The job is straightforward; the stages process is as follows:
Stage 1 Remove Wheel
We’ll be working on one side of the vehicle at a time, meaning we’ll only jack up one wheel at a time.
- Loosen wheel lug nuts (counterclockwise)
- Jack vehicle up
- Fit axle stands under the subframe
- Remove the wheel (I use the wheel for sitting while working)
- Turn the steering wheel to full lock, so the caliper is pointing outward (makes for easier access)
- Now remove the keys from the car
- Have a helper apply the foot brake while you loosen the rotor Torx fastener (easier now than later)
Stage 2 Pad Removal
We’ll begin by snapping a picture of the caliper set-up; while the setup isn’t complex, it helps to have a before picture when you’re unfamiliar. Pay attention to the pads; most vehicles employ a metal tang built into the brake pad to offer you an audible cue to change the pads, some vehicles are a little more sophisticated, and they use a brake pad wear sensor which, if fitted, will need to be unplugged.
Typically there’s only one fitted, but you may have one on either side of the vehicle.
- Using your squeezy water bottle to wet the brake caliper helps control dust
- Pry off the brake caliper spring clip (if fitted) using the flat screwdriver and set it aside in your container
- Remove the caliper fasteners’ dust caps and set them aside
- Loosen and remove the caliper fasteners
- Pry the caliper off the rotor, secure and suspend the caliper from the suspension coil spring with the bungee cord (do not allow the caliper to hang from the flexi brake hose)
- Pry off the outer and inner brake pads
Note some brake pads are fitted with anti-rattle clips, which may or may not come with the new set of pads, meaning we may need to clean and reuse the clips.
Stage 3 Rotor Removal
Use a wire brush to clean the caliper carrier fastener heads; we’ll need a clean fit as the fasteners will be tight. We’ll also need leverage here because messing around with a small ratchet will cause fastener head damage; best to sidestep these types of problems; it’s about having the right tool for the right job.
- Use a socket (ideally six point) and breaker bar to loosen both carrier fasteners; once loose, use your ratchet to remove them and set them aside
- Remove your caliper carrier
- Remove the Torx rotor fastener we loosened at the start of the process
- Your rotor should be free; if not, using a ball hammer (wear eye protection), strike the rotor hat between the studs (careful not to hit the stud threads). The rotor will come free
Stage 4 Fit Rotor
The new rotors must be cleaned thoroughly as most new rotors come with a rust protection coating that, if not cleaned thoroughly, will contaminate your new brake pads. Use brake cleaner and a clean cloth to de-grease them.
- Clean the hub rotor interface with a wire brush
- Mount your new de-greased rotor, fit and seat the Torx fastener (tighten later)
- Refit the carrier and fasteners and tighten them securely (Typically fastened to 85lb-ft (115Nm))
Stage 5 Fit Brake Pads
In this stage, we’ll use our brake cleaner, 400-grit paper, and our wire brush to clean all the important brake components before lubing important contact points to prevent binding and brake noise before finally fitting the pads.
- Using our brake cleaner, spray the caliper on both sides
- Now add synthetic grease to the slide pins
- Add the anti-squeal paste to the pad backing plate, pad contact points, pad carrier rail mounts
- Add a smear of copper grease to the wheel and wheel hub interface. (It makes wheel removal easier for the next guy).
Note some brake pads are marked left and right, check them for markings before fitting. Fit the new pads taking care to fit the brake pad wear sensor (if applicable).
If your pad setup employs anti-rattle clips, now’s the time to fit them.
The pads should fit snug on the brake pad carrier rail mounts. If they appear very tight, you may need to file the paint from the new brake pad mounting points (which happens with some aftermarket brake pads).
Stage 6 Caliper Fitting
In this stage, we’ll push the piston back into the caliper to make room for the new pads to do this; we use a wind back tool, but if you don’t have one, you can improvise with channel locks or refitting the caliper and one old brake pad and levering the caliper forward works too.
The process is as follows:
- Place the wind back tool onto the caliper and, using an old pad, push the piston home; alternatively, use channel locks to squeeze the piston home.
- Before refitting the caliper, be sure the rubber brake line (Flexi hose) isn’t twisted.
- Fit the caliper over the new pads; if you are struggling, then the piston needs to go in some more.
- With the caliper in place, fit and tighten your caliper fasteners, typically, they are torqued to about 26lb-ft (35Nm) but most DIYs make sure they are tight and fit the dust caps.
- If your caliper employs a caliper spring clip, refer to your picture snapped at the beginning for fitting points. Adding a touch of copper grease to the clip contact points makes refitting easier. Use your flat screwdriver to lever it back into place.
- Now grab the caliper and slide it over and back to ensure it’s secure and moves freely without binding.
- Check the rotor is grease-free; hit it with some brake cleaner if needed.
- Have the helper place a foot on the brake while you tighten the rotor Torx fastener to 10lb-ft (13Nm).
Stage 7 Fitting Wheel
- Straighten the steering wheel, refit it, and hand-tighten the lug nuts until they seat
- Remove the axle stand and drop the jack.
- Use a torque wrench to tighten the lugnuts in star sequence to 100lb-ft (135Nm).
- Rinse and repeat on the other side of the vehicle.
Stage 8 Bedding in Brakes
This is the final and most important stage. In this stage, we’ll ensure you have a good firm brake pedal before moving the vehicle, and then we’ll bed in the brakes, which basically means will be test-driving the vehicle.
- Pump the brakes several times to push the pistons out and brake pads against the rotors. Failing to do this important step means you won’t have any brakes on the first application, so obviously, this is an important step
- Check the brake fluid level and top up if needed, but it’s rarely necessary. If you previously topped up, then your fluid level will be too high, and you may need to remove some. Use a siphon to remove excess fluid
- Now tighten the cap and shut the hood
- Ensure you have a firm pedal before starting your vehicle
- Pick a driving route that’s not super busy, as we’ll need to run a few braking tests
- From 20 mph brake gently to a slow and repeat three times
- From 40 mph brake gently to a slow and repeat three times
- From 60 mph brake gently and repeat four times
- Avoid hard braking initially, it can overheat the new pads and cause glazing
- Finally, check your brake fluid lever one last time and call her good
DIY Rear Rotor Replacement Process
Replacing rear rotors is a little more work; although the process is the same as fitting front rotors, we have the parking brake to deal with. Rear calipers are on most passenger vehicles different from the front because the rear calipers are parking brake integrated.
The rear calipers double as part of the parking brake system and can’t be treated exactly like the front calipers. And that’s why it’s important to identify what type of parking brake setup we have before starting the job, and that’s what we will do next.
Identify Parking Brake
Generally, there are three flavors of parking brake setup, and they are easy to identify:
- Manual Parking Brake – Manual integrated parking brake calipers are the most common type. If you don’t have a parking brake operated by a button on the dashboard, you likely have wind-back calipers fitted.
- Electronic Parking Brake (EPB) – The electric parking brake caliper is easy to identify as it will have a button on the dash to apply the parking brake, and the motors can be heard working.
- Parking Brake Shoe – rarest type, and usually only fitted to top-end models
In the guide below, we’ll cover the manual parking brake and EPB-type calipers, as they are the most common types fitted to passenger vehicles.
The manual rear caliper looks very similar to a front caliper but it uses a parking brake lever. The manual rear caliper removal and fitting process differ from the front, but the rotor removal, pad fitting, and rotor fitting processes are nearly identical. And so, in this section, we’ll just cover how we wind back a manual caliper since that’s the only difference, make sense?
Manual rear parking brake integrated calipers are known as wind-back calipers because they require both winding and pushing to get them back into the caliper housing, a special tool called… you guessed it, the wind-back tool is used.
The process is as follows:
- Select a wind-back adaptor that matches the piston notches
- Fit the wind back tool
- Turn the piston clockwise a quarter turn (if it’s difficult to move, try turning counter-clockwise a little)
- Now use the tool to push the piston in
- Repeat until the piston is fully retracted
After pad fitting (as per above), go ahead and bed in the brakes (as per above). Nice work!
The EPB rear caliper removal and fitting process are different from the front calipers, but the rotor removal, pad fitting, and rotor fitting process are close to identical.
And so, in this section, we’ll just cover how we engage EPB maintenance, rewind the caliper piston and disengage EPB maintenance mode on the electric parking brake caliper since that’s the only difference.
As the EPB is a computer-based system, we’ll need to tell the control module we want to work on the system, and when we’re finished, we need to tell the module to become active again.
The process differs as follows:
- Plug the tool into the OBD port located under the dash panel
- Power on the tool & Ignition on
- Select EPB
- Select Maintenance Mode
- Select Confirm (you’ll hear rear electric motors operate)
- Turn off the ignition but leave the scan tool plugged in as we’ll need to reverse the process after pad replacement
- Now go ahead and push the caliper pistons home; unlike manual rear rotors, they do not need to be turned while pushing and so channel locks may be used, or pry them with a suitable flat screwdriver.
After pad fitting as per above, we’ll need to engage the EPB active mode again, the process is as follows:
- Turn ignition on
- Select EPB on the scan tool
- Select Active Mode
- Select Confirm (you’ll hear rear electric motors operate)
Now go ahead and bed in the brakes as per above, Nice work!
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.