How Do Car Brakes Work? Learn About Cost, Location, Replacing etc.

Car brakes are often hidden behind the wheels, but they play a crucial role in your vehicle’s safety and performance.

It’s essential to have a basic understanding of what car brakes look like so that you can identify any issues and maintain your car properly.

How Do Car Brakes Work?

Car brakes are made up of several components. The key element is the brake rotor – a metal disc that’s connected to your car’s wheel.

dunlop tire

As you press the brake pedal, hydraulic pressure from the master cylinder is transferred to the brake calipers.

These calipers act like clamps, squeezing brake pads onto the rotor to create friction, which slows down and stops your vehicle.

Most modern cars have disc brakes on the front wheels, which are easy to spot through the wheel spokes.

You’ll notice a shiny, circular metal disc (see below), and a component mounted nearby, which is the caliper holding the brake pads. Some cars might use drum brakes on the rear wheels, which are cylindrical and enclosed, making it difficult to see the inner components.

If your car is equipped with an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), you’ll also find wheel sensors and an ABS pump. The wheel sensors detect when a wheel locks up during braking, and the ABS pump then modulates the brake pressure to prevent skidding.

What Do Car Brakes Look Like?

car brakes closeup

The appearance of car brakes can vary depending on the type and model of the vehicle, as well as the specific kind of braking system it uses.

Finding new cars with drum brakes can be challenging, as the vast majority of new cars are now equipped with disc brakes. However, some new, often more budget-oriented models, may still have drum brakes, typically on the rear, including some models of Honda Fit, Chevrolet Spark, and Kia Rio.

Modern cars often use disc brakes on the front wheels and may use either disc or drum brakes on the rear. High-performance and luxury vehicles are more likely to have disc brakes on all four wheels.

Both drum and disc brakes are typically mounted behind the wheels of a vehicle, which means they are partially visible through the wheel spokes or not visible at all if the vehicle has wheel covers or hubcaps.

Here’s what they look like.

Disc Brakes

Here you can clearly see the disc in the center of the wheel:

car brakes closeup

  1. Brake Rotor: This is the disc-shaped component that you might see through the wheel spokes on many modern cars. It’s usually made of cast iron or composite materials like reinforced carbon or carbon ceramic matrix composites.
  2. Brake Caliper: This component houses the brake pads and usually sits over the edge of the rotor. Calipers can come in various designs, but their primary purpose is to squeeze the brake pads against the rotor to generate friction and thus stop the car.
  3. Brake Pads: Inside the brake caliper are the brake pads, which are rectangular blocks made from friction material. When you press the brake pedal, hydraulic fluid forces these pads against the brake rotor, slowing down the wheel.
  4. Brake Lines and Hydraulic System: Though not directly visible, the brake lines carry hydraulic fluid from the master cylinder to the calipers, allowing force to be distributed to the brakes.

Drum Brakes

Here you can see the drum brake unit on an older Ford Fiesta (to the top right) and a Skoda Citigo:

Drum brakes on skoda citygo and ford fiesta

  1. Brake Drum: This is a bowl-like component that rotates with the wheel.
  2. Brake Shoes: These are the counterparts to brake pads in disc systems. They sit inside the drum and press outward against its inner surface when the brake pedal is pressed.
  3. Wheel Cylinder: This component pushes the brake shoes against the drum when hydraulic pressure is applied.

Where Are The Brakes Located On A Car?

In most cars, you’ll find the braking system distributed between the front and rear wheels.

Both the brake pads, calipers, and rotors or drums, can be found near the wheels. To locate them, you’ll want to focus on the area just behind the wheel assembly.

It’s not too difficult to access the brakes for a basic inspection. However, if you need to replace components or perform detailed maintenance, you may need to remove the wheel or other surrounding parts to fully access the braking system.

How Long Do Car Brakes Last?

Car brakes typically last between 30,000 and 40,000 miles, depending on your driving habits and the specific type of brakes your car has.

Several factors can impact the longevity of your brakes. For example, if you frequently drive in heavy traffic or engage in aggressive braking, your brakes may wear more quickly. On the other hand, if you drive mostly on highways or practice a gentler braking style, your brakes could last longer.

It’s a good practice to have your brakes inspected during every visit to an automotive repair shop or at least once a year.

In addition to checking brake pads, these inspections should also measure rotor thickness, as brake rotors typically need replacement between 50,000 and 70,000 miles.

How Much Do New Car Brakes Cost?

New car brakes cost from $30 to $50 per wheel, on average. Rotor costs tend to range between $40 and $70 per wheel. It’s important to note that heavy-duty pickup trucks and vehicles that haul or tow regularly might require more expensive brake parts.

And, if your rotors are severely damaged, you might need to have them replaced, which will add to the overall cost.

Now, let’s take a look at a table comparing the costs of new brake parts versus those from a scrap yard:

Brake Part New Cost (per wheel) Scrap Yard Cost (per wheel)
Brake Pads $30-$50 $15-$25
Rotors $40-$70 $20-$40

What Happens When Car Brakes Get Too Worn?

When the brake pads get excessively worn, their friction material thins out, which could lead to extended stopping distances. As a result, your car won’t slow down as quickly as it should, increasing the risk of accidents.

Also, grooves may form on the rotor surface, which can be seen between the wheel spokes. Deep grooves indicate that your brakes are overdue for replacement.

Another sign of worn-out brakes is a squeaking or squealing noise when applying the brakes. This sound is caused by a thin metal strip in the pads that makes contact with the rotor when the pads have worn down too much.

dunlop tire

If you hear this noise, it’s essential to get your brakes checked immediately to avoid further damage.

Excessively worn brakes can also cause your steering wheel or brake pedal to vibrate when stopping. This vibration is due to uneven wear on the brake pads and rotors, leading to a less effective braking system.

Ignoring these symptoms of worn-out brakes can have serious consequences, such as increased risk of accidents, damage to the brake system components, and more expensive repairs. Regularly monitor your car’s braking system and address any issues promptly to ensure safe driving experiences and extend the lifespan of your brakes.

Can You Replace The Car Brakes Yourself?

Yes, you can replace your car brakes yourself if you have the necessary skills and tools.

You will need:

  • a socket wrench,
  • brake caliper compression tool or C clamp,
  • and wheel chocks, among others.

Furthermore, working on a vehicle’s braking system can be dangerous if you don’t take the necessary precautions.

When replacing your car brakes, make sure to follow these general steps:

  1. Park on a dry, flat surface: This ensures that your vehicle is stable while you work on it. Don’t forget to use wheel chocks to prevent the car from rolling.
  2. Lift the car and remove the wheel: Using a jack, lift the car and place it on jack stands. Then, remove the wheel to access the brake components.
  3. Remove the brake caliper: This step involves loosening the caliper bolts and sliding the caliper off the brake rotor. You may need a caliper compression tool or C clamp to compress the piston and make room for the new brake pads.
  4. Inspect and replace the brake pads and rotor (if necessary): Check the condition of the pads and rotor, and replace them if they show significant wear or damage.
  5. Reassemble the brake components: Mount the caliper back onto the rotor, add a drop of medium-duty thread compound (typically blue in color) to each mounting bolt, and tighten the bolts to the correct torque specification. Finally, put the wheel back on and lower the car.

Before you start your vehicle, it’s important to check the brake fluid level in the reservoir.

After completing the job, test your brakes in a safe area to ensure they are functioning correctly.

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