Rick's Free Auto Repair Advice

Brakes pulse when stopping

If your Brakes pulsate when stopping, read this post to discover the causes.

I have two articles covering the topic of brake pedal pulsation and noise. Read this article first, then THIS one.

To get a better understanding of disc thickness variation caused by lateral runout, read this post

If your brakes pulsate when stopping, you can fix the problem yourself.

Many professional mechanics and most DIYers blame rotor “warp” for brake pulse problems. The truth is, rotors simply don’t warp. That’s a myth! Don’t believe me? Read this post from the brake experts at Brake and Equipment Magazine, a publication written for professional brake technicians.

However, brake rotors will produce one-heck-of-a pedal pulsation if they accumulate an uneven level of friction material transfer on opposite rotor faces. That’s called disc thickness variation (DTV) and it’s the #1 cause of brake pulsation when coming to a stop. The explanation for DTV is long, but if you want to do a quality brake job, you have to understand what causes your brakes to pulsate so you can prevent it on future brake jobs.

Brake job Mistake #1 Buying Cheap Parts

First, let’s talk about the most common mistakes pros and DIYers make when doing a brake job. The #1 mistake is buying cheap rotors. I can talk all I want about the difference between a name brand top-of-the-line rotor and an economy rotor, but I’ll let the photos do the talking. The photos shown here are two brand new rotors for the same vehicle. One is a “white box” no-name economy rotor and the other is a brand name top-of-the-line rotor. Notice the difference in weight. Then notice the difference in the thickness of the rotor surfaces. What you can’t see from these shots are the differences in the cooling vanes. The cheap rotor has fewer cooling vanes. And cheap rotors usually don’t match the OEM design vanes. Rotor cooling is essential and some OEM rotors have curved vanes to get maximum cooling. Those curved vane rotors are much more expensive to duplicate, so knock-off companies just cast straight vanes. But you can’t just rely solely on a brand name because most companies offer two quality levels; a “service” grade for penny pinching customers, and a “professional” grade that’s the company’s top of the line product.

Brake job Mistake #2 Not cleaning new rotors properly

Let’s assume you buy the best brake rotor. You take it out of the box, spray aerosol brake cleaner on it to clean the brake rotors before installing. You’ve got to remove the anti-corrosive “oil” coating. Then you slap in on the wheel hub. STOP! You’ve just made two mistakes! Aerosol brake cleaner is great at removing anti-corrosive coating, but it DOES NOT remove the manufacturing machining residue. You heard me, no matter how much spray you use, you’re leaving machining particles on the face of the rotor. If you install them without further washing, the metallic particles will embed into the new pads and cause problems. That’s why ALL rotor manufacturers REQUIRE cleaning with  Hot SOAP AND WATER!

I know, you’ve never heard of that or done that in any brake job over the last 40 years. Well, get over it. Times have changed and this is the latest protocol for brake rotor cleaning. Even professional technicians are having to learn how to do it right. So quiturbitchin and start doing it NOW. Then clean the hub.

Brake job Mistake #3 Not cleaning the hub

Next, you have to clean wheel hub mating surface. The wheel hub accumulates rust and that rust can introduce lateral run out. And I’m not just talking about a quick wipe with a rag. Here’s where cleanliness come into the picture. Imagine what would happen if, as you installed the rotor, you dropped a dime between the wheel hub and the mating area of the rotor. Even if the wheel hub and rotor are true, they’re now no longer perfectly parallel to each other with the dime in-between.

The dime introduces about .053” of lateral run out at the wheel hub. But out near the far edge of the rotor, the run out is closer to .265. So the rotor wobbles as it turns. During each revolution, one face of the rotor will hit the inboard pad and the opposite face will hit the outboard pad. The pad’s friction material will build up on each of those faces and you’ll wind up with rotor thickness variation. And THAT’s one major cause of pedal pulsation. So what to do about it?

As you’ve seen, any mis-mating that happens on the wheel hub amplifies itself as you extend out to the edge of the rotor. That’s why brake manufacturers specify a maximum of .002” of run out measured at the middle of the rotor. That means you must remove all the rust from the wheel hub. 3M has come out with a system that chucks into your drill. See it here.  Just slide the unit over each stud and pull the trigger. The abrasive pad will remove rust without removing metal from the wheel hub.

Brake job Mistake #4 Improper Lug Nut Torque

Ok, you’re getting the picture about clean wheel hubs. Now let’s talk about lug nut torque. If you’re tightening lug nuts without a torque wrench, you’re begging for trouble. I know, you never had to do that in the old days. Well, it’s not the ’60’s anymore. You can introduce the same kind of lateral run out that we introduced with the dime simply by torquing lug nuts by hand without a torque wrench. All the nuts have to be torqued evenly. If you don’t, you’ll “cock” the rotor and introduce lateral run out.

Of course, all of this assumes that the wheel hub is true. If it’s not, all your work is in vain. Your new brake job will develop pedal pulsation in about 3,000 miles, even with good pads and quality rotors.

Finally, you have to ensure that the caliper slide pins, pad hardware, and caliper abutments are clean and coated with high temperature synthetic brake grease. This is no small matter, because is the caliper can’t “float” and the pads can’t retract, you’ll wind up with rotor overheating and pedal pulsation. Anti-seize is NOT the proper grease. Buy a tube of the newest “ceramic” synthetic grease and apply a light coating to all these surfaces after you cleaned them. If you find any corrosion on the caliper slide pins, REPLACE THEM.

Also, choose the right PADS. Read this article about brake pads.

Finally, perform the proper pad break-in procedure. Perform 30 stops, each from 30MPH, allowing 30-seconds cooling time between each stop. That’ll heat up the pads and cure them, transfer a film of friction material evenly over the two rotor faces, and set you up for a perfect brake job. Avoid hard panic stops for about a week, because that can overheat the pad and cause glazing.

© 2012 Rick Muscoplat

Posted on by Rick Muscoplat


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