Posted by: Realist | November 19, 2007

DIY auto repair

I have a theory of why country people have so many broken down cars in their yards. DIY car repair sounds so appealling. Why pay $100+/hour for a mechanic for something you can do yourself? Any decent country person has a plethora of tools. How hard can it be?

I have done the brakes on all 5 cars that I’ve ever owned. Why? Because a brake job seems outrageously expensive for what is (in theory) such a simple procedure. Unfortunately experience has shown me that every single brake job has gone sour and each one has probably cost me more in the end than the original outrageously expensive estimate. But I keep trying, because I figure if a brake job ever does go perfectly, I will finally save all that money!

So today I decided to replace the pads on my Corolla. How hard could this be? I’ve done the same thing at least 4 other times. Now’s the time I’m going to benefit from all the hard-earned experience.

I get the car jacked up on an axle stand and wheel off just fine. (In the past I’ve rolled/dropped a car off the jack, damaged the body by not getting the jack on the frame, had frozen lug nuts, etc.)

I rotate the caliper off just fine without dropping it onto the brake line or my finger. I swap the pads out just fine and avoid breathing brake dust. No need for anti-squeal goop, no missing pieces, no pads the wrong shape. I put a camping foam pad down on the gravel before crawling under to inspect, no bruised knees for me. I even dodge falling dirt aiming for my eye. I know enough to wear latex gloves to protect from the black brake dust that goes everywhere. This is great, I’ll be done in no time.

I get out my big c-clamp and slowly press the piston back into the caliper to make room for the new pads. What a joy, no leveraging the piston with a screwdriver and scratching the rotor or gouging my hand. I’m about to swing the caliper back when the voice of experience calls out: “Don’t pinch and cut the rubber boot! The last time you did that all the brake fluid drained out and you had no brakes at all!”

Ah, yes, the dreaded rubber boot that surrounds the piston is now sticking up. If I put the caliper back now, it will get pinched between the piston and the pad. I try to push it in with my fingers. It bulges elsewhere. The boot is full of brake fluid and won’t go down.

OK, time to bring the piston back out. How? Press the brake pedal carefully? Last time I did that with drum brakes the wheel cylinders exploded because there was no pressure on them. Fast forward 30 minutes later. With the wife’s help, I have now pushed the piston in and out half a dozen times, and each time the darned rubber boot sticks out, threatening to get pinched and cut. I can’t get the new pads in. Grrr. I crack the bleeder valve, letting fluid drip all over the ground my tools, my clothes, hoping it will help. No go.

Time to trudge across the street to the crusty old been-there, done-that neighbor. What’s the secret trick? He doesn’t have one. Just fiddle with it, he says. I notice his car up on blocks has been there for the past 4 weeks.

I’m starting to run out of daylight, so that’s what I do: fiddle. And I think I get it back on there without pinching the boot, but there’s no way to tell except to look for the tell-tale puddle of leaked brake fluid on the ground tomorrow morning, followed by absolutely no brakes at all. I hastily begin reassembly. Torque the caliper bolts, experience has taught me these things strip easily. Darn manual is in foot-lbs, torque wrench is in inch-lbs, multiply by 12, carry the 1. Put the wheel back on. Lower the car. Torque the lug nuts, I’ll never forget having a wheel almost come off due to loose lug nuts.

So then I do what I did the last time this happened. Research the cost for a new caliper vs the cost/time to rebuild the caliper with a new o-ring and dust boot. Which requires bleeding the brakes, requiring a helper and a trip to the store for clear tubing.

I’m already in this project for 4 hours, including research, and I have no idea if I’ll have working brakes tomorrow. And I’ve only done one wheel, which may now need a new $150 caliper.

Suddenly the $300 or so at the shop doesn’t seem so expensive anymore. I sure hope the brakes work tomorrow morning. I have to go to work.



  1. My favorite was helping a friend rotate his tires, except we could only loosen the lug nuts on two of them. We tried jumping on top of the lug nut wrench, and before seriously hurting ourselves, we gave up. He had to go to the shop where they admitted over-using the power tools a bit.

    Good thing that wasn’t an emergency.

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