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Summary
  • Use either brake cleaner or soapy water to clean the drum brakes.
  • Always apply brake lubricant to the drum brakes after cleaning the brake part.
  • Try to clean the drum brakes after performing regular maintenance on the brakes.

If your car has drum brakes, you need to know that they accumulate dirt like brake dust and mud over time. Dirt can remove the lubricant protecting the brake drums and other brake parts, leading to issues like the brakes making grinding noises. You can wash the grime off to restore its performance, but cleaning drum brakes takes more than just spraying everything with water.

Tips on Cleaning Drum Brakes

Here are some useful tips and tricks that can ease the chore of cleaning your car’s drum brakes:

Prepare Your Tools and Materials

You’ll need certain materials to remove dirt that’s too stubborn for mere water to wash off. Furthermore, you’ll need several tools to remove and reinstall the wheels and drum brakes for easier cleaning.

Here are the things you’ll need to clean your car’s drum brakes:

  • Car jack
  • Jack stands
  • Wheel chocks
  • Tire iron or lug wrench
  • Wrench
  • Pliers
  • Brake cleaner
  • Wire brush
  • Clean cloth
  • Safety gear (gloves, mask, and safety glasses)

Drain the Brake Fluid Beforehand

Before cleaning the drum brakes, check the brake fluid for possible replacement. Just like the drum brakes, the hydraulic fluid gets dirty over time. It also degrades because of various problems. You might as well drain old brake fluid and replenish it before removing the brake drums for cleaning.

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Find the brake master cylinder in your car. It’s usually in the engine bay and near the brake pedal. An easy way to locate and identify the cylinder is to follow the brake fluid lines that carry hydraulic fluid to the brakes. The lines originate from the brake master cylinder.

Once you’ve found the brake master cylinder, drain at least half of the brake fluid into a container. Then, top the cylinder off with fresh brake fluid.

Get rid of the old brake fluid according to local regulations. Here’s how to dispose of old brake fluid.

Remove the Wheels First

The wheels block easy access to the drum brakes. While you can wash the brakes with the wheels on, the chore becomes much easier if you remove the obstructions.

Loosen the wheel’s lugs with a tire iron or lug wrench. Turn each fastener counterclockwise to loosen it. However, don’t remove the lugs yet.

Next, use a car jack to raise your vehicle until there’s enough clearance between the tires and the ground. Put jack stands under your car or truck to keep it raised. Add wheel chocks to the tires that remain in contact with the ground to help prevent accidents.

Once you securely mount your vehicle on the jack stands, remove the lugs from the wheels. Remove the fasteners with the tire iron or lug wrench. Then grab the tire and slowly pull it free from its mounting.

Removing the Drum Brake

Remove the drum brake from your vehicle. Look for a hole just outside the drum. The hole lets you reach the brake adjuster screw that controls how tightly the brake shoes press into the brake drum.

If you cannot see the brake adjuster screw in the access hole, turn the drum brake until the hole aligns with the adjuster. Then, turn the brake adjuster screw in the direction that loosens the brake shoes. When properly done, the shoes will stop tightly pressing into the brake drum’s surface. Now, pull the drum from your vehicle.

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Sometimes, the brake drum might resist your efforts to pull it out from your vehicle. If this happens, fetch a screwdriver and pry the drum off with the tool.

Clean the Drum Brakes

The time to clean the drum brakes has finally come. Depending on your preference, you can use a commercial brake cleaner or soapy water.

Brake cleaner is a commercial cleaning agent that helps remove dirt, dust, grease, and oil. It’s an aerosol stored in a spray can and suited for cleaning various car parts, such as the engine. Using it is as easy as spraying it on the brake drum, letting it work its magic, and then wiping or washing it off.

Alternatively, you can use soapy water. Dissolve dishwashing detergent in water and stir until it’s soapy. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and squirt it over the drum brake.

Reapply Brake Lubricant to the Drum Brakes

Whether you use brake cleaner or an alternative cleaning solution, you must lube the drum brakes after you finish. The drum brake is coated in grease, protecting the metal from harmful substances. Unfortunately, brake cleaner dissolves the lube, necessitating the reapplication of brake lubricant after the cleaning process.

Look for a brake lubricant that’s compatible with drum brakes. Apply the grease on the brake drum’s surfaces where metal comes into direct contact with other metal. However, avoid putting the lube on the brake shoes.

Reinstalling the Drum Brake and Wheel

Reinstall the newly cleaned drum brake and wheel on your vehicle. Then, repeat the cleaning process with the drum brake on your vehicle’s opposite side.

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Additional Tips on Cleaning Drum Brakes

Make your life even easier with these tips on other matters related to cleaning the drum brakes:

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Brake Cleaning Schedule

A good rule of thumb is to clean the drum brakes when you perform relevant maintenance tasks. For example, you will need to replace damaged or worn-out brake shoes. After installing new shoes, clean the drum brakes.

Work Safely

Always put on protective gear before working on the drum brakes. Some of the substances that have accumulated on the brake drum are toxic to humans. One example is brake dust, the residue created by contact between the brake shoe and brake drum. You don’t want to inhale or touch powdered brake shoe lining material and iron. Wearing a face mask, protective eyewear, and gloves can reduce the risk of breathing in brake dust.

If you’re going to work under your vehicle, take the necessary steps to stay safe. Ensure the jack stands remain secure while bearing your vehicle’s weight.

Cleaning vs. Replacing Drum Brakes

Sometimes, washing the drum brakes isn’t enough. The issue might go beyond dirt. Inspect the drum brake for physical damage and wear. If the drum’s surface bears grooves, scoring, or other signs of wear, don’t bother cleaning it. Instead, get a replacement drum brake.

In the same vein, check the brake shoes. The friction material that lines the shoe gradually thins out from use, especially if you hit the brakes hard. If the brake shoe lining becomes too thin, it can cause problems like reduced responsiveness and potential damage to the brake drum’s surface.

About The Author
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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