® Squeal and other brake ills

Some not really random thoughts on vintage Honda brakes. Enjoy, be informed, enhance your riding.

Brake squeal, disc brakes
Brake squeal is a common complaint among vintage motorcycle riders, more so than among riders of more modern machines. Part of this is due to older technology, and part is due to differences in how we use brakes today.

Brake squeal, whether disc or drum, is generally a matter of vibration. That is, the friction pad or shoe, or in a few cases the disc itself, oscillates--just a fancy way to say "vibrates"--at a very high frequency, creating the squealing sound. Automotive-originated fixes such as high temperature grease applied to the backs of the pads serve to damp the vibration but not remove it and can be very effective, but not so much in motorcycle application with its smaller parts and likely different vibration spectrum. One fix that was developd by Honda and used for a sporadic period in the early 1970s was a takeoff on the goop idea, actually a gasket that was added behind the brake pad. This gasket was a standard part on very early CB750 fours. I have replicated this solution on a number of bikes, Hondas and others, with gret success, for decades. The gasket must be hard and thin, not typical squishy gasket material as that will negatively affect lever feel. I used to use those gloss-coated license plate shop logo placards. They were thin, tough, and relatively waterproof, and lasted 10 years at a stretch. These placards are hard to find now, but cereal box cardboard is close to the same thickness, though not surface treated, so do not last as long. Simply trace around both pads onto the cardboard, cut out, punch the requisite retaining pin holes, and insert. Against the backs of the pads, of course! Works great.

Modern brake calipers have anti-squeal springs, oddly shaped steel clips that bear against the brake pad, preloading it and preventing it from wiggling very much. Make sure these springs are in place and correctly installed. They mostly work, but the gaskets are still needed on many of these calipers.

A few motorcycles have gaskets under their brake discs which act as resonance-damping parts. Make sure when servicing brake discs (getting your wheels polished or powder coated) that these special gaskets are not left out. They are very useful for other brake issues too, as we will explore in a minute. Another way manufacturers have attacked the squeal problem at the disc, notably Harley-Davidson, was through a spring installed around the outer circumference of the rear discs of certain models, Shovelheads for example. This spring served much the same purpose as the leather strap machinists install temporarily around a brake drum while turning it to reduce noise during the operation.

Chamfering or sanding the disc brake pads in an attempt to reduce squeal is, to be blunt, knee-jerk. It does not work. Just one more thing the Internet is caught up in that is frivolous.

Brake squeal, drum brakes
Speaking of brake drums, they have their own set of problems that result in unwanted noises. The rear drums on many 1970s Hondas have shoes that can vibrate just as disc pads do. One solution is to install an o-ring on the single leading shoe brake shoe pivot just above the shoes. I have seen this effectively damp oscillation of the shoes and stop squeal. But be careful to not interpose this o-ring between the shoes and the pivot, for reasons that should be obvious and have to do with your safety. Honda also produced a number of drum rear brake systems--the CX500 comes to mind--in which the shoe return springs rubbed on the drum casting, causing the shoes to tilt, promoting a resonance. Careful relieving of this area of contact has produced worthwhile results. Another little-understood Honda peculiarity is the rubber washer that is supposed to be on the anchor strap bolt. Its purpose is to damp noise. Yes, that's why it's there.

Brake disc pulsation
Brake disc pulsation is very common. There are actually three types of brake disc pulsation, a fact known only to professional technicians. Warpage of the disc is only one of the causes. Disc warpage of course simply means the disc is no longer flat. The new floating rivet mounting systems used on today's bikes are supposed to help this, not by preventing warpage but by allowing it to occur temporarily, then recovery is supposed to happen and the disc return to straight again. Doesn't always work of course, and today's minimalist discs probably don't help either, their mass being so little as to be easily overcome with heat. It is possbile to correct a warped brake disc by having it ground. Yes, ground, not machined. It's the best way, grinding the disc on both sides at once, thereby ensuring even thickness all the way around the disc. Older brake discs are thicker and alllow more room for this type of repair, whereas newer ones are so thin they often cannot be resurfaced, and they may even be stamped with a warning to that effect. If grinding isn't an option, there is still something you can do. On certain Honda and Kawasaki models, there are gaskets under the brake discs. These gaskets allow a certain "give" in brake disc attachment bolt torque that you can use in your favor. By noting where the high spot is on a brake disc, you can then slightly overtorque the attachment bolts (within reason) near this point, and "tune" out much of the perceived warpage. This was actually taught at Honda factory training school. If you have two discs on the wheel, after noting each discs high spots, remove the discs and rephase them, high matching low and low matching high. Naturally, this won't remove the disc warpage, of course, but it does something almost as good; it has the effect of doubling the pulsation frequency and halving its amplitude, which often makes the pulsation minor enough to live with. Then proceed with the torque tuning for even more benefit. The second reason brake discs pulsate is from uneven wear. This is not the same as warpage. Disc thickness variation is a major cause of brake pulsation. The corrective method here starts with recording the thicknesses of your disc at eight equidistant points around the disc. A difference from thickest to thinnest of an amount exceeding factory guidelines qualifies that disc for the rubbish bin, but you an still try the rephasing and/or torque tuning and see if they help, first. Can't hurt. A third and really very common cause of brake pulsation is patches of hardness change in the metal, at spots around the disc. This was the problem with the early Kawasaki Concours 1400. The corrective here is replacement.

Disc brake pads
The demand for ever higher performing disc brakes has pretty much mandated the higher friction sintered metal or ceramic brake pad today. The softer organic pads treat the discs more gently, but the metallic pad make vintage brakes stop better.

The effects of storage
Glycol brake fluid trashes brake systems. little controversy on user forums. I have a brake fluid article, take a look. Silicone fluid should be used in every vintage Honda. It keeps the calipers and cylinders from corroding.

Last updated December 2022
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