How Disc Brakes Work

By: Karim Nice

Most modern cars have disc brakes on the front wheels, and some have disc brakes on all four wheels. This is the part of the brake system that does the actual work of stopping the car.

The most common type of disc brake on modern cars is the single-piston floating caliper. In this article, we will learn all about this type of disc brake design.


Disc Brake Basics

Disc brake location

Here is the location of the disc brakes in a car:

The main components of a disc brake are:


  • The brake pads
  • The caliper, which contains a piston
  • The rotor, which is mounted to the hub
Parts of a disc brake

The disc brake is a lot like the brakes on a bicycle. Bicycle brakes have a caliper, which squeezes the brake pads against the wheel. In a disc brake, the brake pads squeeze the rotor instead of the wheel, and the force is transmitted hydraulically instead of through a cable. Friction between the pads and the disc slows the disc down.

A moving car has a certain amount of kinetic energy, and the brakes have to remove this energy from the car in order to stop it. How do the brakes do this? Each time you stop your car, your brakes convert the kinetic energy to heat generated by the friction between the pads and the disc. Most car disc brakes are vented.

Disc brake vents

Vented disc brakes have a set of vanes, between the two sides of the disc, that pumps air through the disc to provide cooling.

Self-Adjusting Brakes


­The single-piston floating-caliper disc brake is self-centering and self-adjusting. The caliper is able to slide from side to side so it will move to the center each time the brakes are applied. Also, since there is no spring to pull the pads away from the disc, the pads always stay in light contact with the rotor (the rubber piston seal and any wobble in the rotor may actually pull the pads a small distance away from the rotor). This is important because the pistons in the brakes are much larger in diameter than the ones in the master cylinder. If the brake pistons retracted into their cylinders, it might take several applications of the brake pedal to pump enough fluid into the brake cylinder to engage the brake pads.


Self-adjusting disc brake

Older cars had dual or four-piston fixed-caliper designs. A piston (or two) on each side of the rotor pushed the pad on that side. This design has been largely eliminated because single-piston designs are cheaper and more reliable.

Emergency Brakes

Disc brake with parking brake

­ ­In cars with disc brakes on all four wheels, an emergency brake has to be actuated by a separate mechanism than the primary brakes in case of a total primary brake failure. Most cars use a cable to actuate the emergency brake.

Some cars with four-wheel disc brakes have a separate drum brake integrated into the hub of the rear wheels. This drum brake is only for the emergency brake system, and it is actuated only by the cable; it has no hydraulics.


Other cars have a lever that turns a screw, or actuates a cam, which presses the piston of the disc brake.

Servicing Your Brakes

Disc brake pad
Photo courtesy of a local Autozone store

­ ­The most common type of service required for brakes is changing the pads. Disc brake pads usually have a piece of metal on them called a wear indicator.

When enough of the friction material is worn away, the wear indicator will contact the disc and make a squealing sound. This means it is time for new brake pads.


There is also an inspection opening in the caliper so you can see how much friction material is left on your brake pads.

Disc brake inspection opening

Sometimes, deep scores get worn into brake rotors. This can happen if a worn-out brake pad is left on the car for too long. Brake rotors can also warp; that is, lose their flatness. If this happens, the brakes may shudder or vibrate when you stop. Both of these problems can sometimes be fixed by refinishing (also called turning or machining) the rotors. Some material is removed from both sides of the rotors to restore the flat, smooth surface.

Refinishing is not required every time your brake shoes are replaced. You need it only if they are warped or badly scored. In fact, refinishing the rotors more often than is necessary will reduce their life. Because the process removes material, brake rotors get thinner every time they are refinished. All brake rotors have a specification for the minimum allowable thickness before they need to be replaced. This spec can be found in the shop manual for each vehicle.

For more information on disc brakes and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Disc Brake Diagram

Disc brake components

Now let's put the parts together to see how disc brakes work as a whole. This diagram shows the basic parts that make up a disc brake system.