Skip to content
Restoring Your Wheels: How To Clean Rust From Brakes & Calipers

Restoring Your Wheels: How To Clean Rust From Brakes & Calipers

When it comes to vehicle maintenance it may seem obvious to highlight the need for thorough brake servicing, yet it is so. Brakes are one of the most vital pieces of safety equipment on a car and there’s no harm in ensuring they are at the top of the list come service time. It is also possible to go further: Routine maintenance of the working parts of a brake assembly is a relatively straightforward task that helps ensure perfect working order between services. Here’s how:

How To Prevent Your Brake Discs From Rusting

Unless your automotive budget is able to afford high-end vehicles with carbon fibre brakes, the reality is that your car probably has cast iron brake discs as part of the assembly behind each wheel. As is to be expected, these components take the brunt of everything the road and the weather can throw at them and that includes copious amount of rainwater.

A car’s brakes, if left standing for a while will, on close inspection, have a sheen of rust on the surface. This is normal and there is very little to be done about it because any form of ‘coating’ applied to the braking surface may be detrimental to braking efficiency. The solution is to operate the vehicle and allow the action of braking to ‘clean’ the surface of the disc. That said, other parts of the brake assembly can be protected by a few simple tasks:

1. Remove the wheels: Jack up the car ensuring that the usual safety precautions are taken. Remember, the purpose of the jack is to raise the vehicle. Always chock the remaining wheels to prevent the vehicle from rolling off the jack. Axle stands should be used if working beneath a car.

2. Remove the brake calliper: Carefully take out the calliper bolts. The calliper should then slide up, away from the disc. A top tip here is to ensure that callipers do not hang by the brake pipe alone; this can damage the brake fluid line with potentially disastrous results.

3. Remove the disc: Undo the securing bolts and slide the disc out for cleaning and inspection. If it is pitted or scored, replace with new. Although the contact surface of the disc must be left as standard, it is acceptable to clean the centre section. Use a wire brush to remove surface rust and clean, or even paint the surface (see below). Top Tip: Always wear a mask and safety goggles to protect from rust flakes and brake dust.

4. Replace the components: Reverse the above process and assemble. Now might be a good time to clean and protect the alloy wheel too. Brake dust and road detritus accumulates on the wheel so use a quality product to bring back that showroom look (see below).

How To Protect Your Brake Callipers From Rusting

As with the discs, there’s not much to be done to prevent brake callipers from rusting but they can be protected. High end performance cars sometimes have brightly coloured brake callipers showing through the alloy wheels. There’s no reason why any mainstream motor should not have the same.

Follow the procedure above and remove the callipers. Note: It may be sufficient to just swivel them away from the disc. Support the calliper in some way, a bungee cord might serve, to prevent it hanging by the fluid pipe, as above. Note: If removing the calliper completely, then loss of brake fluid must be minimised. Consult a workshop manual. To make them look like new, try this:

1. Remove the rust: Brush any surface rust away with a wire brush utilising a good brand of iron remover, ensuring eyes and breathing are protected. Some canned air might be handy to blow away residue.

2. Prime & paint: The heating effect of braking (you may have seen how motor racing cars’ brake discs can glow for example) requires any paint to be specifically for high temperatures. Your local motor factor will stock it. Paint the callipers with high-temperature primer first; allow to dry and then paint with the colour of choice. Allow to thoroughly dry and reassemble.

How To Clean Brake Rotors Without Removing The Wheel

Brake rotors (aka the discs) are hard to access with the wheel in place. Because of water spray from the road, discs rust quickly on the surface when the vehicle is not in use. If removing the wheel for a thorough clean is not practical or possible then the only solution is to drive the car. The rust will quickly be removed by the action of braking. That said, braking creates brake dust as the pads wear away. Fortunately there is a process for this too:

How To Remove Brake Dust

Brake dust is an inevitable part of the process of driving. It gets in the brake assembly and onto those shiny alloy wheels. As described above, cleaning rust from the braking system will also clean away any brake dust. A quality iron remover will help. Removing the wheel is a good time to give those alloys a bit of TLC too.

1. Cleaning alloy wheels

Wash the wheel first with an alloy cleaner; this will remove some of the brake dust and other contaminants. The trouble is, brake dust likes to cling tenaciously onto surfaces. This is because those tiny particles of iron receive a static charge from heating up and this gives them magnetic properties. Using a brush, an acid-free cleaner will remove road grime and any remaining brake dust. This will also help to protect the wheel’s surface and reduce the build-up of brake dust if applied regularly.

How To Clean Brake Pads And Discs

Brake pads and discs wear out; that’s a fact of motoring. The trick to making them last as long as possible is to (1): Brake carefully and evenly in good time and (2) try to keep both the pads and discs clean with regular maintenance. A squealing noise from the brakes might signify worn out pads but also that they are in some way contaminated by road debris or pollutants.

Using the procedures outlined above, release the pads from the callipers and slide the callipers out of the way to access the discs.

1. Inspect the pads and discs: Always wear suitable latex gloves to prevent further contamination of grease or oil from the hands. If the pads look thin and worn, replace the them. If the discs are pitted or scored replace them. Otherwise a good clean will aid superior performance.

2. Cleaning: Ensuring eyes and breathing are protected, for the pads alone a brisk rub with a fine-grained sandpaper will aid the cleaning process. That done, use a wipe or applicator block impregnated with cleaning alcohol or a touch of brake fluid and gently rub the surface of the pads and discs free of any grease or oil.

Top Tip: When the assembly is fully rebuilt and the car is ready, a quick braking test drive will ensure any traces of cleaning fluid are removed. The brakes may squeal initially. This will also allow the self-adjusters to situate the pads.

How To Clean Brake Fluid From Car Paintwork

When servicing brakes it always pays to ensure that the brake fluid level in the reservoir is as it should be. It may need topping up or even replacing, a job that should be done every couple of years.

Accidents happen and when topping up or routinely handling brake fluid spillage is always a possibility. Now, brake fluid is corrosive and can be damaging to engine components and car bodywork, acting like an aggressive solvent.

Brake fluid can break down any wax or ceramic coating previously applied to paintwork leaving vertical marks or streaks as it flows down the car's body. If left unattended the worst case scenario is that the fluid will have eaten through the paintwork to the bare metal, given time. It must be dealt with immediately: No question. This is what needs to be done:

1. Mop it up: The key word here is mop, not wipe. Try to absorb as much of the fluid as possible by letting it soak into a clean towel or microfibre cloth. Do not wipe as this risks spreading it out across any surface, compounding the problem.

2. Remedial action: Immediately wash the affected area with copious amounts of soap and water to help neutralise the corrosive nature of the fluid, even if the bodywork has been protected by a wax or ceramic coating, the brake fluid will make short work of that.

3. Protect The paintwork: Almost certainly any protective coating will have been damaged so local bodywork detailing is needed. After washing, assuming the paint is still intact, polish to remove streaks and reapply wax. It would make sense at this stage to do a full detailing job on the car’s bodywork. After all, spending time ensuring that not only are the brakes working properly, it makes sense to tackle the other jobs at the same time.

We spend a lot of money on our cars and running them is an ongoing expense. Where it is possible to do these jobs personally means savings later when the time comes for the annual garage service. Some aspects of modern cars are highly technical and should be left to the professionals but brake assembly cleaning is a comparatively straightforward job that can be handled by any automotive home enthusiast.

Previous article How To Clean A Soft Top Or Convertible Roof - A Detailed Guide
Next article How To Prepare Your Van For Sale