If there’s one component of your car that can impact the quality and safety of your daily commute, it’s the brake pad. Drivers are often guided by costs when choosing consumable car parts, completely disregarding the fact that there’s a difference in how these parts wear out, and how they behave while being used. The same applies to brake pads.
You can find cheap pads, but they rarely bring the bang for the buck you’re hoping to get. As it turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to choosing the right brake pad for your car. In this installment of the eEuroparts.com Car Owners’ Manual, we’ll discuss available options and how each one can impact your driving experience. By the time you’re done reading this, you should have a firm grasp on the general topic of brake pads.
The Anatomy of a Brake Pad
What comes to mind when you think of a brake pad? Most people visualize a simple piece of metal that has some braking material glued to one side. In reality, there’s the whole anatomy to an average brake pad. The ones used in modern cars are complex pieces of precision engineering that play a crucial role in your braking system. Every part of that pad was designed with a purpose and is meant to make your driving experience safer, more comfortable, and generally more enjoyable.
Before we can get to organic vs ceramic pads, or OEM vs high-performance aftermarket, we have to understand the parts that make up a brake pad. Here’s the breakdown.
Brake Pad Shims
Brake pad shims are the silent heroes of the brake pad world. They don’t directly affect the braking performance of the pad, but they definitely affect your quality of life while you’re driving. For some, that’s a good chunk of their life. The job of a shim is to dampen the vibrations coming from the pad and prevent them from reaching the caliper. Think of a shim as an insulating layer that sits between the brake pad backing plate and the caliper.
Interestingly enough, the development of shim technology has produced some fairly intricate solutions. Most high-end brake pad manufacturers ship their pads with built-in shims that not only reduce noise and vibration but also help spread the heat more efficiently.
Adhesive Vs Rivets/Tabs
Not all shims are created equal. In the world of brake parts, you pretty much get what you pay for. Cheaper aftermarket pads are known to come with simple shims that are most often glued on. While that isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quick failure, glued shims that utilize no other form of retention are known to fail quite often long before the pad wears out.
The reason why this happens leads straight to the low quality of adhesives that hold the shim in place. Brake pads turn speed into heat, and heat and cheap adhesives don’t mix well. High-quality OEM or quality aftermarket pads come with shims that are either built into the backing plate or ones that are retained using metal clips or rivets among others.
Both of these alternatives are known to be fairly reliable and generally will outperform most systems that use adhesives.
Should You Reuse Brake Pad Shims?
The answer is a solid no. Brake pad shims, even the high-quality aftermarket ones you can buy as a standalone component, should be replaced every time you replace your pads.
Once shims wear in, they are formed to that particular pad and will most likely not be a perfect fit for a new one. On top of that, a shim that has 20,000 miles on it has gone through so many heat cycles that it’s hardly the same,
Your average backing plate is made of steel. Its job is to transfer the clamping force of the caliper evenly across the entire surface of the pad. However, the backing plate is often a failure point on many cheaper aftermarket pads due to corrosion.
As rust sets in across the backing plate, it transfers over to the shim. In many cases, rust will eat right through a cheaper shim that is glued on. Even worse, rust can greatly compromise the rivets on riveted shims, resulting in a piece of metal that is completely free-floating. It’s not uncommon to have to replace a relatively fresh pad just because of the rust issue.
Braking Compound Mating Options
Most backing plates are mated to the braking compound using some sort of hybrid adhesive/molding method. In other words, the pad is glued onto the backing plate but also molded into it. Some older pads used to be riveted, but that design has been outdated for a while now.
The adhesive/molding method is the current standard, but it also comes with a built-in flaw of its own. Namely, despite the fact that the braking compound is pressed into the backing plate and glued on using strong adhesives, the extreme temperature cycles the pads are subjected to often cause delamination.
It’s not unheard of to see barely used pads where the friction material has split away from the backing plate. That being said, such issues are mostly found on cheaper pads.
Brake Pad Friction Surface
Lastly, there’s the braking pad compound itself — the part of the pad that turns speed into heat and helps slow down the car. We’ll talk about different types of brake pad compounds a bit later in this guide. For now, let’s focus on the shape of the pad and how that affects its performance.
Brake Pad Slots
Most modern brake pads feature a slot somewhere on their surface. A vast majority of pads have a single slot that bisects the friction material down the middle, but some manufacturers utilize different designs.
The main purpose of this slot is to create an escape route for the hot gases that form along the surface of the pad as you brake. Modern performance rotors feature similar solutions, which we’ve written about in our brake rotor guide.
The secondary purpose of these slots is to reduce vibrations. The slot is a stress relief point that allows the pad to do its job without cracking or otherwise losing its structural integrity.
If you’ve ever seen an average brake pad, you probably know that it comes with chamfered edges. There’s a reason for that, a pretty good one at that. Just like shims are there to reduce noise and vibrations, so are these chamfers. The type of chamfer, its angle, and geometry, will generally depend on the rotor as well as the vehicle the pad is being installed on.
We’ve done a complete piece on the process of brake tuning, which explains how these vibrations and resulting frequencies affect the entire braking system of the car.
Different Types of Pads
By now, you should have a decent grasp of how a brake pad functions as a sum of its parts. Let’s take this story one level deeper and enter the world of braking compounds.
Right off the bat, you should know that there are no best or worst types of braking compounds. The fact of the matter is that different applications, different driving styles, and personal preferences call for different braking compounds.
Non-Asbestos Organic (NAO)
Non-Asbestos Organic pads are the go-to choice for most commuters. This type of compound was developed specifically for everyday street use where comfort, noise reduction, and reasonable price matter the most.
NAO pads are the successor to the now illegal asbestos pads. The organic compounds used to make these pads differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, but you’re very unlikely to see any NAO pads referred to as “performance” pads.
- Medium noise
- Low vibrations
- More than fine for regular commuting
- Wears out relatively fast
- Produces a lot of brake dust
- Very easy to push over the limit
Ceramic Brake Pads
Next up are the ceramic brake pads. Ceramic pads use various ceramic compounds to reinforce the braking material to a point where it is far more durable than NAO. If you’re looking for an upgrade over your NAO OEM pads, a set of ceramic ones will definitely improve your driving experience.
The use of ceramics and limited metals allows these pads to be quieter than their NAO counterparts, last longer, and produce far less dust. The overall braking performance is the same, with the exception that ceramic pads take longer to properly warm up. You could experience a weaker “bite” in northern parts of the country, or anywhere where temperatures frequently dip below 32 °F.
- Long life span
- Low noise
- Low vibration
- Lower amounts of brake dust
- Often expensive
- Take time to warm up
Metallic Brake Pads
Metallic braking compounds utilize a material that is made of a varying amount of metals. It all depends on the manufacturer and the intended application of the pad in question. You’ll find metallic pads with 30% metallic content, while there are also pads that feature up to 70% metallic content. Pads with less metal content are often called semi-metallic, even though this label could be applied to this entire family of braking compounds.
What defines metallic pads is their ability to withstand heat and wear. They are often found on larger commercial vehicles, but also performance cars that require that extra bite when approaching a corner. The trade-off for higher performance is a noticeable reduction in comfort. Metallic pads are loud and somewhat rough in terms of vibrations.
- Better bite
- Better heat management
- Longer life span than most
- Often expensive
Brake Pad Selection — What to Get?
As we near the end of this segment of the eEuroparts.com Car Owners’ Manual, one question becomes obvious — which brake pads to get? There seem to be so many options out there, all of which bring something unique. It’s really easy to get lost in the reviews, comparisons, etc. The only actual way to select brake pads for your car is to answer one simple question…
What Is the Main Purpose of Your Car?
If it’s a daily driver, a simple people-mover, then you’ll most likely be content with a good set of quality OEM NAO pads. This is the most reasonable option for cars that are used for every day commuting. You’ll get the best bang for your buck, and most importantly, optimal driving comfort. However, if you’re the type of driver who likes to push their car from time to time, you might run into trouble.
Those who appreciate a more dynamic driving style, as well as those who track their cars, should consider metallic pads. They’re simply the best possible option for applications where performance is a metric.
Ceramic pads are somewhere in-between. They are generally a good option for those who want a longer-lasting solution that offers a bit more bite than the regular NAO pads.
Stick to Brand Name Manufacturers
Another important tip is to stick to known and proven brand name manufacturers. Cheap, no-name pads are tempting as they are often far cheaper than anything branded out there. However, you’re literally getting what you pay for with brake pads. Are your safety and the safety of your passengers worth the $20 you saved by using a no-name aftermarket set of pads?
Every proven brand offers eco and affordable pads. If you’re a budget user, you’ll definitely find something suitable for your needs. The slightly higher cost over no-name alternatives is a small price to pay for safety.
Use Brake Pads Designed for Your Car
If you’re having trouble figuring out which pads to get, you might want to check what we have in store for your specific vehicle. Our current offer includes full product ranges of numerous top-tier brake pad manufacturers. More importantly, we offer complete brake service kits that come with all the hardware and components necessary to make your car brake on a dime once again.