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Explorer Disc Brake Tips and Tricks (LONG)


April 12, 2010
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Year, Model & Trim Level
03 XLT
Well folks i've fought through a number of braking woes recently, which all stemmed from a pending brake pad/rotor job...

Seems my brakes were quite low (pads to the steel, rotors getting gouged), a quick browse of ebay and i found a good affordable set of pads and rotors. A few days later they were on my doorstep....

Heres some tips and tricks.... LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES!

- Buy a big c-clamp, and have some gloves handy, also buy some caliper lube, its about $1 at an automotive shop
- Change your pads and rotors in pairs, you want your braking even.
- If you change a caliper, its the same deal. Do it in pairs.


Place truck in park on a level surface and engage ebrake, brace tires you arent working on (even in park the truck can roll slightly and fall off the jack, dont kill yourself to save a few $'s).

Remove tire and jack up vehicle

Compress the caliper

The pistons in the caliper extend during operation to keep the pads in close proximity to the rotor during normal operation. As the pads wear, the piston extends further and further from its normal position. New pads are obviously thicker than the old, so you must compress the piston. Its best to compress the piston before removing the rotor.

Take your large C-Clamp and place the fixed end on the back of the rotor and the "screw" end on the back of the pad on the outside of the caliper (on the pad, not the caliper!). Be sure you have the clamp on the caliper and not the brake line, pinching the line would be an expensive mistake.

remove the cap from the master cylinder. Slowly turn the c-clamp, this will compress the piston and push fluid into the master cylinder, be careful you may push so much fluid back that it overflows, wrap it with rags if you are unsure. You dont want your paint peeling!

Now that the caliper is compressed, the Caliper assembly must be removed from the brake assembly to be able to remove the rotor. You will find two bolts on the backside of the caliper, loosen these bolts but do not remove the caliper yet. First find a coat hanger and tie it so you can hang the caliper from the end of the clothes hanger. The brake lines are very fragile never leave the caliper hanging by the line!

Completely remove the bolts and hang the caliper out of the way. At this time i like to take some red loctite and coat the threads of the caliper bolts, read up on the forums about these bolts coming loose and you'll spend the 40c ensuring they don't come out on their own....

You shpould be able to slide the rotor off, sometimes there are special washers on the lug bolts holding the rotor on, cut these off with wire cutters. Removing them with pliers is a recipe in frustration! You can buy replacements cheap in the hardware store - they aren't required but but make things a little less tedious on re-assembly. Sometimes the rotor can stick and a hammer wont remove it or break it loose, before you do something stupid, check youtube theres a great video on removing these by inserting a nut and bolt behind the rotor and torquing it off.

Place the new rotor on the hub assembly. place the special lock washers on as well (if you have them). Hammer the lock washers on with a deep socket and a hammer, again using pliers is frivolous.

Onto the brake pads!

Remove the pads from the caliper, they should slide out from the inside. Before you quickly slide the new ones in... wait a minute, a little work here will save you some pain later.

It's a good time to check your caliper health, see those two bolts still on the caliper? you can unscrew those. these bolt the caliper slides on onto the caliper mount. if you unscrew these you can remove the caliper slides (held in by the rubber boots)by pulling them out. be sure to inspect them for undue wear. Clean the boot and slides clean with a fresh shop towel, then re-grease them using the caliper grease - a little goes a long way.

Do the same for the other slide, then reattach the bolts to the slides. Torque them down, but dont be stupid, you can probably over torque these.

Now that the caliper is reassembled, its a good time to clean the shiny metal brake pad slides. These are the parts of the caliper that the brake pads touch (top and bottom of pad), they're probably gunked up, use some degreaser / heavy duty cleaner and a mild abrasive sponge to clear off the buildup on these slides...

Word of warning, you dont want to get ANYTHING on the new pads or rotor other than brake cleaner or maybe water. Anything else can cause problems (See below for some brake change side effects).

Now that the pad slides are clean, place a dot of caliper lube on these slides as well. Some people say leave em dry. I see no problem with mine greased.

Carefully place the new pads into the caliper. Oddly the pads will go in backwards or upside down. The pads should follow the curvature of the rotor with the metal plates on the outside. On the explorer the pads are the same for the inside and outside of the rotor.

Note: My pads came with "shims" these are metal plates that clip onto the back of the pad and reduce vibration. These "shims" caused me a terrible amount of trouble (squealing) and moved down the pad after a few days causing uneven braking. I removed the shims and used brake anti-squeal gel. This stuff isnt pretty and is quite messy but does the job. If you use it - use it VERY sparingly. It turns to rubber when it dries and your brakes will be super quiet afterwards - worth the 5$. That being said, the shims may work well for you... dont leave them in the box unless you have another plan.

Now that the pads are in, slide the caliper back onto the rotor and install the caliper bolts. I've read that you need to torque these beyond belief. Use a breaker bar or if you used the red loctite, use a hammer on an old socket wrench. make sure you've given them your all, you don't want these falling off!

At this time you can push some of the fluid back into the calipers and squeeze the pads together, this is good for three reasons..
1. you'll know that the calipers work and the pads are in place properly
2. you'll reduce the fluid level in the master cylinder, reducing the chance of overflowing it on subsequent pad changes.
3. if the caliper fails (can happen on compression of the pistons if the caliper is old / failing) it will leak brake fluid.

You can now install the tire and repeat the above for the next wheel.

Now thats as much as you should need to do... but things can go wrong. Heres what happened to me.

1. Caliper stick

One of my calipers failed, but didn't leak brake fluid. This manifests itself as a burning smell after driving or most noticeably your rotor(s) turning blue. This is because the caliper isn't releasing. This is dangerous. deal with it quickly. (Note, caliper stick can be caused by other components of the braking system failing and creating residual pressure in the system)

I first greased the slides and caliper slides to no avail.

Replacing calipers is fairly straightforward. Heres some tips (in no particular order)

1. Keep a lot of cardboard under the wheel, the brake lines drain like crazy and make a helluva mess.
2. remove the caliper and hang it like before - prior to removing the brake line, this makes for a quick swap
3. remove the pads PRIOR to unhooking the brake line. You don't want the pads soaked with brake fluid. Put them far away.
4. When you remove the brake line, be careful, the bolt you will unscrew to remove the line is called a banjo bolt, its delicate, ensure you are unscrewing it (not tightening it), Be gentle.
5. There are two copper washers on the banjo bolt, one on each side of the brake block, these compress to make an oil-tight fit NEVER REUSE THESE (Use fresh new ones!)
6. Calipers can and will install upside down. The bleeder screw should always be on the upper portion of the caliper. If you install it upside down you'll NEVER bleed the lines (i learned the hard way and had to take it to a shop...).
7. when you re-attach the brake line, DO NOT OVERTIGHTEN - again, the copper washers are soft, you'll need to torque them a bit but don't two hand them unless you are a pencil pusher.
8. Buy some proper clear tubing that fits exactly over the bleeder bolt and long enough to go to a jar on the ground. You need a tight fit or you'll never bleed the lines properly.
9. Bleed the brakes with the truck OFF and using the bleeding technique below.


Bleeding the brake lines (a good idea even if you aren't changing your brakes, calipers or rotors. Keep the fluid clean, change fluid every 2-5 years!).

What you need
1 2' length of clear tubing (that fits the bleeder screw, the automotive shops know what size is common)
1 sturdy jar (or pop bottle with a hole in the lid the tube can slide into)
1 sheet of cardboard
1 clean rag(s)
1-1.5 litres of brake fluid (DOT3 for Explorer)
rubber gloves
A helper to work the brake pedal

Done well you can do this without taking the tires off the vehicle. Its harder but it can be done. Always engage the park brake before working on your vehicle.

Starting at the PASSENGER REAR, move to Driver rear, then passenger front and finish at driver front. You want to bleed the

1. Open the master cylinder, top up fluid to MAX level
2. Use a socket to loosen the bleeder screw as wrenches can strip the soft screw. 3. Attach the line to the bleeder screw and feed tube into bottle / jar to collect the used fluid.
3. Have your buddy press and hold the brake pedal, as they are holding, loosen the bleeder screw and watch the fluid pass into the jar. As their foot reaches the firewall, tighten the screen. have them remove their foot (drawing fluid into the brake system), repeat until....

-- If you are bleeding air from the brake lines
Watch for bubbles to completely stop and firmness to return to the brake pedal.

-- If you are flushing the brake lines
Watch for the fluid to become clear or at least the same colour as the new fluid.

Note: Check the fluid OFTEN in the master cylinder as letting the fluid get too low will cause you to feel really bad and you'll need to re-bleed the whole system (or worse).

When you've bled the line, tighten the bleeder screw and wipe off any excess fluid.

Repeat for the remaining tires.


Myth: You need a special tool to bleed explorer brakes that cycles the ABS

This ISN'T TRUE for the 01-08 gen of explorers. I am proof of this. I let the front lines drain out and it didn't happen. If you cant bleed the brakes....

Check the calipers are installed in the right orientation and brake lines aren't leaking.


Stuff that can go wrong even though you've done everything right.

1. Brake squealing
- Check pad assembly
- Check shims
- Some noise is normal while the pads / rotors mate

1. Brake chatter / grinding / gouging at low speed
- This was a big problem for me. I'd stop at 5 stop lights or so, the brakes would heat up then it would happen. The horrible grinding feeling, That feeling like something REALLY BAD is wrong with your brakes. Then i'd leave the vehicle parked the brakes would cool down and it would go away until the pads heated up... This perplexed me.... and the info on the internet is TERRIBLE.

Absolutely no abnormal wear shows on the rotor or the pads!

I tried

- Re-greasing shims
- Switching pads from one side of rotor to the other
- Replacing calipers (this needed to be done anyhow as my caliper was sticking - blue rotor)

The solution!

The pads or rotor or both are glazed. This happens when the pads heat up so hot the materials melt and then re-harden. A glassy surface is formed on the pad and provides lackluster braking performance. Sometimes glazing will fix itself over time, but the horror of pedestrians at stop lights cowling in fear of your horrible train emergency braking sound will perhaps lead you to want to resolve the issue sooner.

Remove the caliper, and remove the brake pads.

Take a sheet of 200 grit (or semi rough sandpaper), lay it on the floor of your garage. Take the brake pad and look at it, notice the sheen / shine - now lay the pad face down on the sandpaper and swirl it around (about 20 - 30 times). The pad material should come off easily and the sandpaper will get black. Now look at the pad, it should be dull and gray. This is good, were only removing a mm or less. Do the same for the other pad.

Now, take some finer grit paper (i used 320) swirl the paper on the rotor face. The sanding marks should be barely noticeable on the rotors - you are merely breaking up that mirror finish (my rotors were so smooth i could have used it as a shaving mirror - this ISN'T good). Reattach everything. Life should be good, no more terrible braking grinding.

Note: Don't go all cowboy on your new brakes, they are new and need to be broken in slowly, heavy braking will glaze your pads/rotors. Gear down when going downhill. The explorer is a TRUCK, pull it into 3 when going down hill before punching the brakes. Especially when towing. Use the engine to brake, its meant to do that.

Braking in brakes ISNT necessary for consumer city driven vehicles. There are camps of people that say you must and that it provides a better braking experience. Your chances of ruining or glazing your brakes following these procedures is so high its not worth the theoretical 10% increase in performance. Sure, if you have a Mustang GT and plan on putting it on the track, be my guest.


How disc brakes work

From what i understand (im no pro - im not even a mechanic!) brakes use an abrasive action initially to heat up the pad / rotor. Once they are in operating temperature the pad will melt slightly and stick to the rotor creating a small layer of pad material. As you brake hard this layer creates a friction surface to slow rotation. The pad material will transfer back and forth. On race cars (that burn a set of pads during a race) the rotor will actually be thicker at the end of the race!

Now, when you get a warped rotor, its RARELY the rotor that warps. That pulsing feeling is the uneven transfer of brake pad material to the rotor. This can happen if you brake feverously down a steep hill to a stop light then hold the brakes at the stop light while everything cools down. The part where the pad is stuck to the rotor will leave an uneven surface compared to the rest of the rotor. The only fix that i know is to have your rotors turned - which involves scraping a new face on the rotor.


Slotted Vs Smooth Vs Drilled rotors

[My 2c] The more you read, the more you will be confused, they're all good. get some decent mid range rotors and forget the hassle - Its an explorer, its an awesome vehicle, its not a sports car and its not towing 15,000 lbs. Mine came from ebay cross-drilled. Some say they cool quicker and are good for towing - others say they crack at high temperature all i know is that they were the right price and had a good consumer rating. Some say slotted rotors clean the pads and keep gasses from building up. All i know is that if you dont buy the walmart special you'll probably be fine.

Same goes for the whole - metallic / semi-metallic / ceramic game. If you have money to burn, go get some braembo overpriced prepainted ricer gear and you'll be as happy as the guy that just bought the most expensive TV on the block. You'll feel superior and probably get 5-10% better performance for twice the price.

I hope i help someone, i know this forum was a lot of help. But i never did find a complete resource, so this is compilation of what worked for me. NO WARRANTY OR GUARANTEE OF ACCURACY IS IMPLIED.




Well-Known Member
May 14, 2009
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City, State
Central MA
Year, Model & Trim Level
2006 Limited V8
Good info Crudster. :thumbsup:

Do you have anything to say about the rear emergency brake work?

I just did a write-up today (lots of pictures) about changing the rear rotors/pads. It's linked in my signature if you'd like to see.