Front brake pad replacement is one of the easiest brake repair jobs you can do. Pads typically last about 20,000 to 30,000 miles, depending on your driving style, environment, load types, etc.
Front pads always wear at a faster rate than the rear. Typically vehicles are heavier at the front, and breaking causes the weight to concentrate at the front. That’s not true for hybrids and EVs; they employ regenerative electric motor braking on the front axle; in front-wheel drive hybrids, the rear pads typically wear the fastest.
Before we get into the staged pad replacement guide, let’s figure out what type of calipers you have.
Broadly there are two types of brake calipers, Fixed, and Floating. The brake pad replacement procedure differs, although not hugely. As floating brake calipers are fitted to most vehicles, they are the type we use in the staged replacement guide below.
Fixed calipers are mostly fitted to commercial and high-performance vehicles.
Fixed calipers are as the name suggests, fixed to the caliper carrier and importantly use pistons on both sides of the caliper to clamp the brake pads to the rotors.
Floating calipers are, as said, used on most regular vehicles today. Floating calipers are so-called because they are designed to move (float) across the caliper bracket.
Because the caliper floats, it only requires a piston or pistons on one side. This reduces complexity and cost and only diminishes performance marginally.
Let’s look at replacing the front brake pads on a floating caliper brake system setup.
DIY Brake Pad Replacement
Replacing brake pads is, as said, one of the easiest DIY jobs a home mechanic can do, so long as you follow the simple procedure. First, you’ll need to prepare for the task at hand; a little pre-planning will ensure the job moves like butter.
You’ll need a hard-level surface, ideally indoors. You’ll need safety glasses, a dust mask, something soft to kneel on, work gloves, or at least disposable gloves to keep the brake dust from soiling your nails and skin.
Brake pads no longer contain asbestos; nonetheless, the dust isn’t healthy to breathe, so have a squeezy bottle of water handy to wet the brakes to help keep airborne brake dust to a minimum.
Tools & Supplies Needed to Replace Front Brake Pads
Tools needed include:
- Lug nut wrench
- Container for loose fasteners
- Axle stand
- Long flat-head screwdriver
- Small flat-head screwdriver
- Wire brush
- Selection of 3/8 drive Torx bits
- Selection of 3/8 drive sockets (ideally six point)
- 3/8 ratchet (ideally telescopic handle)
- Caliper tool wind back tool (large channel locks works too)
- Bungee cord
- Torque wrench
You’ll find all the tools I use here on the brake repairs tools and supplies page.
Supplies needed include:
- Quality pads
- Brake cleaner
- Synthetic grease (rubber safe)
- Anti squeal paste
- Copper grease
- Blue thread lock
- 400 grit sandpaper
You’ll find all the products I use here on the brake repairs tools and supplies page.
Front Pad Staged Replacement Process
Begin by popping the hood and loosening the brake fluid reservoir cap one turn.
Begin by popping the hood and loosening the brake fluid reservoir cap one turn.
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 (place the wheel under the car if you don’t have axle stands, but protect the wheel rim with wood, etc)
- Turn the steering wheel to full lock, so the caliper is pointing outward (makes for easier access)
- Now remove the keys from the car
Stage 2 Remove Pads
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 an audible cue to change the pads.
Other vehicles are a little more sophisticated and use a brake pad wear sensor which, if fitted, will need to be unplugged.
Typically there’s only one sensor fitted.
- Using your squeezy water bottle, wet the brake caliper, this helps control dust
- Pry off the brake caliper spring clip (if fitted) using a flat screwdriver
- Remove the caliper fastener dust caps
- Loosen and remove the caliper fasteners
- Pry the caliper off the rotor, secure and suspend the caliper from the suspension coil spring with a bungee cord or similar (do not allow caliper to hang from flexi hose)
- Pry off the outer and inner brake pad
- If the inner pad employs a locating clip, the pad will come away with the caliper. Pull the pad outward to remove it.
Note some brake pads are fitted with anti-rattle clips, which may or may not come with a new set of pads, meaning we may need to clean add anti-squeal paste and reuse the old clips
Stage 3 Clean Up
In this stage, we’ll be using our brake cleaner, 400-grit paper, and our wire brush to clean all the important brake components and so we’ll need our dust mask.
- Using our brake cleaner, spray the caliper on both sides and the carrier rails
- Using our wire brush, clean the brake pad carrier rails
- Using our 4000 grit paper, clean the caliper bolts’ sides (if applicable)
- Using our wire brush, clean the wheel hub and wheel hub interface
Stage 4 Lube Time
In this stage, we’ll use three different types of lube – rubber-safe synthetic (silicone) grease to the slide pins.
Anti-squeal paste to the brake pad backing plate, pad contact points, and carrier rail pad mounts.
And finally, add a smear of copper grease to the wheel, and wheel hub interface. It makes wheel removal easier for the next guy (you).
A smear of grease is all that is required; avoid over-application.
Avoid getting grease on the brake pad friction side, and clean any grease from the rotor using brake cleaner.
Stage 5 Pad Fitting
Next, we’ll push the piston back into the caliper to make room for the new pads – to do this; we can 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 back works too.
If your pad setup employs anti-rattle clips, now’s the time to fit them.
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). The pads should fit snugly on the brake pad carrier rail mounts. If they appear very tight, then you may need to file the paint from the new brake pad mounting points (which happens with some aftermarket brake pads).
Stage 6 Assembly
- 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 don’t bother using a torque wrench; they just make sure they are tight. Some blue thread lock is advisable, though.
- Fit the caliper fastener dust caps, helps keep the fasteners rust and road debris free.
- If your caliper employs a caliper spring clip, refer to your picture snapped at the beginning for fitting points. Adding 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.
- Straighten the steering wheel, refit the wheel, 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 7 Bed 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 means we will be test-driving the vehicle.
- Pump the brakes several times to push the pistons out and the 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 reservoir cap and shut the hood.
Bedding in Brake Pads
- 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. Nice Work!
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- About the Author
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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.