3 Most Common Brake Noises: Causes and How to Fix Them
Brake Noises: Annoying or Dangerous?
“My brakes squeak” is one of the most common complaints about brakes. Brake noises can be annoying, but can also alert us of an upcoming danger. It's best to play it safe and have brake noises checked by a trusted mechanic.
I will cover three of the most common brake noises I encounter on a daily basis and try to shed some light on the repair.
Some of the repair techniques I share with you here are unorthodox and you will never find them in a service manual or Technical Service Bulletin. If you decide to try them please be cautious and safe.
Let’s check out the three most common problems that cause noisy brakes.
Common Brake Noises and Their Causes
Stop driving! Usually caused by a lack of brake pad.
Thumping from rear
Hard to diagnose, but usually the rear drums.
Either cheap brake pads or break wear indicator is hitting rotor.
Thumping or squealing
If car is parked outdoors, probably caused by rusted rotors.
You may have picked up a rock.
1. Grinding Noise When You Apply Your Brakes: A Wake-Up Call
Hearing a grinding noise when you apply your brakes is really like hitting a rumble strip on the edge of the highway; if you hear this, you need to wake up and stop driving. A grinding noise on braking is usually caused by a lack of brake pad material; the pads and rotors are now metal to metal, with no braking material left.
Brake pads are like bars of soap. Eventually they get used up, and you have to replace them and spend a little money.
If you don’t, and your brakes get to the point of grinding, just imagine dollar signs rising into the air every time you step on the brake pedal, even just a little. The grinding noise is just a little voice whispering in your ear saying, ”You’re killing me!” Mechanics have an acronym for this, it’s called CPR (calipers, pads, and rotors). And when you get the bill for your brake job, you will need CPR (cardio-pulmonary rescuscitation).
If your brakes are grinding, stop driving and call a tow truck. It’s worth it in the long run.
What Happens When You Let That Grinding Noise Go on Too Long
You are supposed to replace the pads so they don’t grind your rotors down to a tissue. If you replace your pads on time you can often keep your rotors.
Don't Go Cheap on Your Rotors and Pads! They Can Save Your Life!
I have used Callahan rotors and ceramic pads on my kids' cars and on other family members' cars with good results. The quality is almost as good as OEM parts, for a fraction of the price of OEM.
2. Thumping Noise From the Rear When Braking
This brake issue is one that will annoy the hell out of the driver, and suck the life out of the technician. It took me months to figure out what caused this thumping noise in the rear of a vehicle when braking. After tearing apart the rear of the vehicle, lubing every bushing, and checking the clearances of every part imaginable, I came to the conclusion that it’s the rear drums that cause the noise.
Many cars have drum brakes in back, where a shoe stops the car by pressing on the inside of a metal drum. Brake drums, like rotors, get resurfaced once in a while. The cutting bit on the brake lathe removes the old braking surface and leaves a nice new mating surface. During this procedure, the cutting bit will create a groove in the brake drum so slight that the naked eye can’t see it; it’s like a groove on a vinyl record that the needle of the record player follows.
When the brake shoes ride on the new surface, they will follow the groove like the needle of your record player follows a track. If the groove is interrupted, the shoes snap back, hitting the backing plate. This phenomenon happens very quickly, causing a thumping noise that will drive you crazy and wondering if your car is falling apart or even safe to drive.
There are several ways to fix this noise. One is to replace the rear drums. A second way, less drastic, is to remove the drums, install them on a lathe, and sand the crap out of the mating surface with coarse sandpaper. The third way I found by trial and error and pure frustration is a quick fix using the emergency brake.
You will not find this procedure in any service manual or car repair manual, not even on car repair talk radio. It can be dangerous if not performed correctly so please be careful. Nevertheless, I have done it on over 100 cars, including family members’ cars, and I would not recommend it if I thought it damaged the vehicle.
How this works is that you get your rear brakes to do 100% of the braking for a few seconds at a time, instead of their usual 30%, and this will cause the brake shoes to polish the grooves out of the drum. For safety reasons, only try this on cars that have an emergency brake handle in the center console; emergency brakes that come up out of the floor can’t be set and released quickly enough.
Drive your car in a remote area with little or no traffic at a speed of about 40 miles an hour. Lightly pull up on the emergency brake handle while holding the release button; this is so the emergency brake handle won’t lock in the braking position, and you can release it quickly. Only hold the emergency brake on for about three seconds because you don’t want to overheat the drums. Do this three to five times, while keeping a steady speed; the noise should disappear, or at least be 90% gone. Then drive the car at normal speeds and use the brakes the way you normally would.
If the noise has not changed, you may have a different thumping noise than what I have described here in this article. Give up on this remedy and try something else.
My sister came to me with this noise after she had her brakes checked at her local garage. They had adjusted her rear brakes so the emergency brake handle had less free play in it, and this is when her troubles began. I took her car out on a test drive for about 10 minutes, performed the procedure described here, and poof, the noise was gone. She was happy because the garage that had caused the noise had no idea how to fix it.
3. "My Brakes Squeak"
A brake squeak can be very annoying, and furthermore might mean something. It may be a sign of danger of some kind, or it may just be a sign of cheap brake pads.
The most common brake squeak is caused by inferior pads. A cheap brake job sounds good when you’re paying for it, but it may come with years of painfully annoying brake squeaks. Cheap brake pads have large metal flakes in the brake material, and when you press the brakes lightly and a flake drags along the rotor, it will squeak. The squeak may go away when that particular flake wears away, but usually there is another metal flake right behind it. The best way to avoid this type of noise is to choose quality brake pads.
If your brakes are squeaking or squealing while driving down the road, but the noise goes away when you press on the brakes, I have a hunch that your brake wear indicator is hitting the rotor and causing the noise. The wear indicator is a small metal tab fastened to the brake pad. When the brake pads are worn down and need replacing, this metal tab starts to drag along the rotor, warning the driver of the potential problem. Don’t ignore the noise too long; the brake pads are thin and need servicing very soon, for safety and to protect the other parts of the braking system.
Bonus Noise: Thumping or Squealing Caused by Rotors Rusting Overnight
Especially in cars parked outdoors, rust can build up overnight on the rotor around the impression of the pad, causing a thumping or squealing when you drive the car away in the morning.
Noises Caused by Rust on Rotors
A Bonus Noise From the Brake Area
I have one other noise I run into a lot that has nothing to do with the brakes themselves—technically, it has to do with rotors—but I thought it was worth mentioning here because it comes from that area, and a lot of customers assume it's their brakes causing the noise. If your vehicle makes a scraping noise, while driving or when turning a corner, that sounds like something being dragged across a tin plate, it's possible you have picked up a rock from a dirt road or from a freshly repaired pothole: the kind of place where you hear a shower of pebbles hitting the bottom of your car as you drive through. There’s a good possibility that a rock has gotten lodged between the rotor and the backing plate, making an awful noise that is causing your ears to bleed. Just have the rock removed and be on your way.
Or sometimes the backing plate behind the rotor gets bent while the car is being worked on, and it scrapes against the rotor.
A Rock Stuck Next to the Rotor
There's an easier way to remove a rock stuck behind the rotor: bend the backing plate a little, as shown in the video below!
Scraping Noise From Behind Rotor
I sincerely hope that all the information here will help diagnose that noise that seems to be coming from your brakes. I know that some of my methods are a bit out of the box, but it's what we do sometimes to repair vehicles. There is always a better way, but if you don't try new ideas, you'll never discover it. A wise man once said, "If you do the same things over and over, expecting different results, you must be crazy."
For a couple of other common car noises, see the video below.
Three Common Car Noises
The video above describes squeaking from brake pad wear indicators; a clicking in the front end combined with a shaking steering wheel; and a metallic, knocking noise that happens in the front end while turning.
More on Brakes by Eddie Carrara
- How to Replace Honda Brake Pads: Tips and Precautions
Avoid making costly mistakes when you're replacing brake pads on your Honda. Important steps that backyard mechanics might skip.
- Four Common Brake Squeaks
If your brakes squeak, and you need help trying to figure out what's causing it, maybe I can help! Here are four common brake squeaks to compare to. Questions are welcome!
- Brake Problems? Five Common Brake Problems In Cars
Education for a driver who knows very little about a car's braking system, and possibly help for a technician who is having trouble diagnosing a brake issue.
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Questions & Answers
My car is making a horrible noise coming from the back right tire. First, it sounded like rubbing but now it's worse and I think even people outside can hear it too. I knew my brakes needed to be fixed but I didn't think it would be this quick, will I be able to drive it home?
I have a 2001 Tahoe 4WD with about 150,000 miles. When braking there is a very loud grinding noise; it seems like its louder when it's cold outside. There is still plenty of brake pad left; however, the left caliper was very difficult to remove. Could this be the cause of the noise? Also can the need for an alignment cause noise when braking?
I have a c class motorhome with dualies on the back. There are disc brakes all around. Not always but often when I am going about 20-30mph I hear an intermittent squeak-scape from the back which goes away if I touch the brake pedal. What could this possibly be?