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Video: How to change your brake pads

Sep 19, 2015

Brake pads are a simple, affordable item to replace. Oh, and by the way, your life depends on them. Literally.

OK, maybe I'm being a bit alarmist, but that's the reality of working on your brakes yourself: It's not that hard a job and it's one you can definitely do at home, but it's important to get it right. That's why we're here to help. Watch the video below and then get a step-by-step walk-through on a slightly different brake setup by clicking through the gallery photos at right.

What brake pads should I get?

As with most motorcycle modifications utilizing aftermarket parts, matching your wants and needs with the correct product and processes yields the best results. Consider this guide your shortcut to product selection. But here's a tip you won't get just anywhere: Sometimes, a thorough brake service doesn't even require the purchase of any parts. How many other retailers will admit that and then walk you through the job?

To decide which brake pads you should buy, start by asking what’s wrong with your current set. If you like your existing brakes, buy the same thing! Some motorcyclists are “serial try-ers,” constantly on the prowl for a product that may perform better. If you are satisfied with the performance of your existing pads, why not buy another set of the same ones?

For those of you who want to change your braking performance, you’ll want to assess exactly what it is about your braking that’s not working for you, and then look at what other options exist. Pads really fall into one of two varieties: Sintered and everything else. Sintering is the process of forming a solid mass of metal through heat and pressure without liquefying it. What does that mean in layman’s terms? The brake pad manufacturer takes a metal that is softer than steel — like copper or brass — and then smushes it (with some other stuff in there) into a “puck” of lining material. That smushy puck is pressed onto the backing plate, and as it cools, the two metals become a single, unified brake pad.

“Everything else” involves pads that have a puck made with lots of different stuff — organic materials, fillers, and binders that may or may not incorporate some metal. Those pucks are generally attached to the backing plate with a very strong adhesive. Other materials used in organic brakes include carbon fiber, aramid, Kevlar, glass, rubber — the formulations are proprietary, and will affect brake feel. Unfortunately, this category encompasses all sorts of brake pads ranging from shoddy to very, very good. Protip: Pricier pads from big-name manufacturers usually cost a bit more with good reason. You’ll get what you pay for.

Sintered pads are best for those who brake aggressively. They typically offer more initial “bite” than organic pads. They tend to produce a bit less dust, which is something to consider if wheel cleanliness is important to you. They can be noisier, but typically hold up better under hard braking, which can generate lots of heat. They do tend to last a bit longer than softer organics, but they also are harder on the rotors, so replacement of rotors may be necessary more frequently with this type of pad. Typically, this is going to be the right pad choice for those on big or fast motorcycles.

Organic pads are best for many street situations. Generally speaking, they offer a more progressive feel than a sintered pad. They do dust a bit more and tend to wear a bit more quickly, but they are gentler to rotors. They’re OEM on many bikes, and usually hold up fine under less aggressive street riding. Typically, organic pads are a bit cheaper than their sintered counterparts.

Keep in mind, one of these is not “better” than the other for all situations. Some riders need organic pads, and some need sintered.

In general, metallics are “grabbier” at the initial application, and tend to get grabbier still as they heat. Organics are the exact opposite. They are very progressive, and depending how the heat is affecting them, they may even fade under heavy braking, actually losing some efficacy with increased lever pressure.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of your braking feel and feedback comes not from the pads, but from other parts, like correctly sized master cylinders, calipers, and brake lines. You can have the best pads in the world, but if your master cylinder bore is inappropriate or you have a mushy rubber line, nothing will give you crisp braking.

How do I know if my rotors are OK?

Well, a visual inspection is a good way to start. Deep scoring or grooving is likely to ruin a new set of pads. If you let your brake pads wear to the point that the backing pad material dug into the rotors, they’re probably shot. Replace ’em. If you noticed any pulsations coming through the lever or pedal, that can be a good indicator that heat may have warped your rotors. You can check this by taking measurements of the rotor’s thickness at several points. Thick and thin spots are no goodski. If you have thickness variations, the rotors should be replaced. You can check thicknesses with a variety of tools. Some folks use a dial caliper. Others rely on a micrometer. There is also a special type of mic specifically for brake rotors. The measuring areas come to points to get in between scored areas. Protip: the minimum thickness is typically stamped onto the rotor in an area that is not swept by the pads. The rotor thickness should be greater than the number on the rotor.

If your rotors check out but you still feel a pulsing, you might want to check for lateral runout. If the pulsing is especially bad, you may be able to see or hear the “wave” as it passes by the pads’ friction surfaces, but the “by the book” method of checking for this is with a dial indicator. This is a reasonably specialized piece of equipment, so it may make sense to call your local motorcycle shop and see if they’re willing to check your rotor runout while you wait.

Happily, rotor problems aren’t oft-occurring, so if your rotors measure to within specifications and there are no perceptible pulses, they probably have serviceable life left in them. A few quick dimensional checks can assure that problems aren’t likely to crop up.

What type of lubricants do you recommend?

I like silicone stuff. Petroleum products don’t get along well with rubber, and there are some really important and delicate rubber pieces in your brake system. Specifically, I’m thinking of the slide pin boots on many conventionally mounted calipers, as well as the seal around the caliper pistons themselves. You really don’t want those to leak. A nice, high-temp silicone grease can handle lubrication duties without compromising the longevity of your braking system.

Yamaha FZ6 brake service
The video shows the process of changing the brake pads on Buzzsaw's Triumph, which has radial-mount brakes. Here, I'm working on my Yamaha FZ6, which has conventionally mounted brakes. Click through the photos to see a step-by-step guide. First, I remove the bolts holding the caliper to the caliper bracket. Revzilla photo.

Can I really do this myself?

Yeah, you can. Brakes are probably the third-most-common maintenance item on a bike behind tires and oil. Even if you find you need to replace the rotors, brake work is straightforward. As long as you have a factory manual, some common sense, and the time to devote to the job, you should be all set.

If you’re still nervous, have an experienced friend help out. Generally speaking, this is one of the easier jobs to perform on a bike. I’d personally prefer to change brake pads rather than oil, so if you can get your fluids swapped by yourself, there is no reason at all why you can’t work on your brakes. Conventionally mounted brakes, radial mount stuff, perimeter brakes… it doesn’t matter.

Are there any surprises I should expect?

I can think of a few. Motorcycle brake pads, unlike those for cars, are typically sold per caliper, not per axle. That means if you are planning to do front and rear brakes on a dual-front-disc bike with a disc in the rear, you need to order three sets of pads, usually. Front and rear brakes probably will wear at different rates, so you may not have to change them at the same time, but if you have twin discs on the front wheel, always change pads on both sides. Look up the parts for your motorcycle, front and rear, so you don't get stuck with parts you don’t need.

Shims can be tricky, too. Buzzsaw’s Tiger, seen in the video, uses that one beefy silencer clip. It’s unlikely that thick metal would need to be replaced very often. However, other bikes can use two or three shims, and sometimes they are made of very thin metal. Inspect them carefully, as corrosion and time can take their toll on them. Improperly lubricated or missing shims are often the culprit when customers complain of noisy brakes or I find badly tapered pads.

Oh, and brake fluid is the other thing I wanted to mention. A couple of facts about the brake fluid: First, the brake fluid level naturally drops as your brake pads wear. Second, most modern bikes have a bit of extra volume in the brake fluid reservoir. If you haven’t been adding brake fluid as the level drops, you shouldn’t have to worry about overflowing the reservoir if you pump up the brakes between swapping the pads on each caliper on a dual-disc system. If you have been adding fluid, you may want to visit our how-to on servicing the hydraulic portion of your brakes and you may need to draw some of the fluid out of the reservoir before you start. Otherwise, a brake job may end up turning into a paint job, because spilled brake fluid is nasty to your paint.

Other than that, it’s pretty straightforward. Drop us a line if you get in trouble!