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How to Clean Brake Rotors

Close-up of a dirty brake rotor

If there’s one thing you want your brakes to be, it’s dependable. Good brakes are important no matter what you drive and need to be maintained no matter how much of a DIY mechanic you fancy yourself to be. It’s good to know how to clean brake rotors, but you should also know when you’ll need to take them in to the shop.

Braker, Braker

In a disc brake setup, two pads seated in a caliper apply pressure to the rotor to slow or stop the wheels from spinning. In order to do an efficient job, the rotors need to be clean and smooth. Why? Impurities, rust and debris will damage the pads and the rotors over time. Once the rotors are worn down or become warped, preventing the pads from grabbing their full surface area, they run the risk of not doing their job.

Regular rotor cleaning and checkups are imperative, especially if you do a lot of off-roading. Rotors pick up dust, mud and rocks, which can spell trouble if left unattended. Beyond adverse conditions, even a vehicle in normal situations will develop rust over time. Luckily, rotors can be easy to clean, but only if you fix the problem before it gets out of hand.

Dirty Driving

Complete rotor checks should be a part of your seasonal checkup, but you’ll likely have to tend to them more often, especially if your vehicle is used for any off-roading activities. Either way, the more often you clean them (i.e., the better maintained they are), the less of a chore it will be each time. If you’re driving through dirty conditions on a regular basis, your cleaning schedule should reflect that. If you know you’ve been dragging them around in the mud, clean them as soon as you can to avoid damage.

How to Clean Brake Rotors

Clean Machine

If your rotors are well maintained, cleaning is a breeze. Here’s how to do it, depending on how dirty your rotors are:

  1. Safely lift and secure your vehicle, and remove the tire.
  2. Place a towel underneath and spray a generous amount of brake cleaner all over.
  3. Use a microfiber cloth to wipe down the rotors.
  4. If you’ve accumulated a little more rust and dust, or it’s been a while since your rotors have been cleaned, do the above, but then use hot, soapy water to spray them down and scrub with a cleaning brush.
  5. If the rust and dirt is particularly heavy and you have experience with one, you can use an angle grinder. Just be careful not to go too far. Even a small amount of unevenness paves the way for bigger problems.

Your last option is a lathe, but it’s unusual to have one of these at home, let alone be properly trained to use it. If the buildup or damage is particularly bad, you’ll have to take the rotors to a mechanic’s shop where they’ll use a lathe or will advise you to replace your rotors as needed.

The better you take care of your car, the better it takes care of you. Remain vigilant, and complete all routine maintenance as described in your owner’s manual. But most importantly, know what to look for and stay on top of a maintenance schedule.

Check out all the brake rotor products available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to clean brake rotors, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.

Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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