How to Check Brake Pads

By: Josh Briggs

Image Gallery: Brakes A shot of a brake rotor. Waiting too long to replace brake pads can lead to damaged rotors. See more pictures of brakes.
Image Gallery: Brakes A shot of a brake rotor. Waiting too long to replace brake pads can lead to damaged rotors. See more pictures of brakes.

Washing your car can be a pain in the rear. Especially when you get to the wheels. But once done, there's something gratifying about driving around in your gleaming ride. Then it never fails. The next day you look at your front wheels and notice they're all dirty again. What's going on?

What you're seeing is all the brake dust from your front brake pads. The fine powder is created from the rotor wearing away the brake lining. When you step on the brake pedal, it's this wearing process on the brake material that creates the necessary friction to stop the vehicle.


Brakes are designed to wear out. But sometimes we may go too long between brake jobs and run into additional costs we could have avoided had we checked the brake pads regularly. If the pads wear too far, the metal backing on the brake pad comes in contact with the brake rotor. Once you make metal to metal contact, you've not only damaged the rotor, but put yourself in a dangerous situation. And, you've added a good bit of money to the costs you're facing for new brakes.

This article will give you the insight you need to inspect your brake pads so you can avoid a major brake problem both mechanically and financially. Let's start with how to determine brake wear.

Signs of Brake Pad Wear

An example of worn brakes.
An example of worn brakes.

Believe it or not, most of the time you can check pad wear without taking off the wheels. And you don't need a mechanical engineering degree to do it. Usually, you can see the brake pad through the wheel and won't need to remove it. Once you find the brake pad, notice its thickness. If it appears to be very thin, it's almost used up. Some brake pads have a slot in the center that serves several engineering purposes, but also doubles as a wear indicator. Check to see how much of that slot is left. If it's almost gone, you need new pads [source: CDX eTextbook].

In some instances, you may need to remove the wheel but can inspect your pads through an inspection opening on the caliper itself. This is a small window that gives you a cross-section view of the rotor and pads. The less material you have left, the closer you are to needing new ones. (You can see a diagram of a disc brake here.) With the wheel removed, you should be able to determine the pad's thickness pretty well. If you want to take it a step further and inspect the condition of the pad itself, you'll need to remove the caliper from the rotor. If you've never done this before, pick up an automotive repair manual, or take the car to a mechanic.


Brake dust is the most obvious sign of brake wear. The heavier the car, the more brake dust you'll see on the front wheels versus the rear. If you start to notice less brake dust, that's a sign that you may have worn your brake pads down to the metal backing.

Your ears can help determine brake pad wear as well. If you hear a screeching metallic noise when you hit the brakes, it could be the wear indicator. Wear indicators are small metal tabs designed to come into contact with the rotor once the pad wears to a certain point. Wear indicators are great in that they give you a heads up that it's time for a change before the pad wears too thin [source: CDX eTextbook].

So far we've talked about how sight and sound can help detect brake wear. Let's look at how feeling can help too in the next section.

Uneven Brake Pad Wear

We already talked about visually inspecting the brakes for wear. Your hands and feet can feel wear from the inside of the car too. If you feel grinding when you push the brake pedal, either your pads are worn out or you have a foreign object like a rock or piece of debris lodged between the pad and rotor. In both cases, you need to inspect the pads and rotors immediately. If the steering wheel shakes when you apply the brakes, you probably have a warped rotor or two.

Usually, when you've worn the pad down to the metal, the rotor is damaged and must be either machined or replaced. Run your fingernail across the rotor. It should be smooth like glass. If you feel grooves, it needs to be machined. If you replace the pads but leave the grooved rotors, the pads will wear unevenly from the beginning. To optimize performance of your braking system, the brake pad should be mated to the metal surface as much as possible. These grooves take away from that process. The same is true with warped rotors. Warped rotors will wear the brake pads unevenly.


If you've ever experienced a severe pull to one side during braking, chances are you have a problem with the hydraulics in the braking system. You could have a clogged brake line or a leaky caliper piston. As a result, you're going to have some uneven brake wear here too if you let the problem linger [source: 2carpros]. This is a dangerous condition you must attend to at first notice. Once you've figured out the problem, inspect the pads for uneven wear and replace them when necessary.

Each vehicle wears out the front and rear brakes at a different rate. The heavier the front of the vehicle is, the faster the front brakes will wear out. Consider this when inspecting and changing your brakes. Don't inspect the rear brakes and assume that because they look like they have plenty of mileage left, the front brakes are good too.

You can read more about brakes and related automotive articles in the next section.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • 2CarPros. "Car Pulls Right or Left When Driving or Braking." (Oct. 19, 2010)
  • CDX Online eTextbook. "Braking Systems." (Oct. 19, 2010)
  • Davis, Marlan. Hot Rod Magazine. "Brake Pad Technology - What's New in Brake Pads." March 2010. (Oct. 18, 2010)