Stop the madness! Here’s how to fix those squeaky brakes

Brakes

Nails on the chalkboard, a crying infant, snoring, and squeaky brakes — these are the noises that drive us batty. Most of these dreadful sounds can be easily avoided, but you might imagine squealing brakes are just something you have to live with. We’re here to tell you there’s a way to keep your sanity.

Why the whine?

Before diving into some of the causes and solutions to your brake headache, it’s worth noting that brakes will sometimes make noise. Intermittent chirps are perfectly normal, especially given your home climate. If you still have brake pedal feel and can scrub speed as normal, there’s nothing to worry about.

Put simply, brake squeal is vibration. Specifically, the noise comes from the interplay between a brake disc, caliper, and pad. Affected systems will emit a noise when pressure is applied from the caliper on the disc. You can slam on the brake pedal or carry more/less speed into each braking maneuver, but your brakes could still howl because of the contact between pad and disc.

If you notice your brakes only make noise sometimes, it might be due to moisture-turned-rust on the surface of a disc or pad. This can happen as quickly as overnight and there may be some squeal until all of the rust has been scrubbed from the components.

Track day enthusiasts with racing pads need to acclimate to some squeal. The material used to make performance brake pads is more resistant to heat and creates greater friction, which boosts the resonant frequency into the audible range. For this reason, many weekend racers either choose a pad compound that isn’t aggressive enough to make noise, or swap pads for weekday commuting.

In these two instances, there’s no cause for alarm, but if you start to hear a shrill metallic noise rather than a consistent, high-pitched squeal, you need to tend to your brakes immediately. In this case, you’ve likely worn your pads down to the shoes and are slowing your vehicle without any compound buffer.

What tools and products you’ll need

Before diving into a step-by-step guide to quieter brakes, here are some of the most important tools and products you’ll need, depending on which solution you prefer:

How to silence that noise

Not every car’s brake system will squeal, but those that do can usually be fixed by a DIY-er in a few hours. First, you’ll need to decide whether you want to dampen the noise or change the components to stop the sound altogether.

The first and simplest solution is to change your pads. Depending on which compound you choose, new pads at all four corners can be a bit expensive ($100-$200), but it’s the best way to remove the conditions that lead to squealing. If you’re using a Kevlar pad, you may want to try a metallic or ceramic compound. There are a million aftermarket pad suppliers, all promising the best pad life, stopping power, and price, so you’ll have to do some research on the best for your make and model.

If you don’t want to swap pads, another option is to insert a Teflon shim between the pad and caliper piston. This won’t work for every brake system – some are engineered without any margin of space for a shim to fit without making the pad drag on the disc. You could wear down your pad to a point where it no longer drags with the shim, but that would be a simple waste of money.

Another, more temporary, solution would be to coat the brake pad with brake grease or antiseize to buffer the vibration frequency.

The final, and perhaps best modification (according to Popular Mechanics) is to move the pad backing plate to the caliper piston or housing. Doing so increases the piston’s mass and changes the vibration frequency to a point where it won’t squeal. To get the plate to stick for longer than a few days, weeks, or months, you’ll need the right adhesive. Popular Mechanics suggests an anaerobic adhesive that applies like a film or goo. When you press the plate firmly against the piston/housing, the adhesive will stick like a vice and will resist corrosion from dirt and water.

Final thoughts

If you’ve tried everything and the squeal just won’t quit, make sure your vehicle doesn’t have an open recall for weak braking components. If there’s a chance the manufacturer will pay for a fix, that’s always the best solution!

Update: We’ve added a list of products and tools you’ll need when working on your brakes.