Brake Tech

The myth of warped brake discs

 

Have you ever heard someone say they had warped brake discs?   Typically someone had the discs resurfaced to cure the problem and after a relatively short time the roughness or vibration came back.

In almost every case, this problem is not caused by a warped discs, but that the brake pad material transferred unevenly to the surface of the disc. This uneven deposition results in thickness variation or run-out due to hot spotting that occurred at elevated temperatures.

Friction is the mechanism that converts dynamic energy into heat.

Just as there are two sorts of friction between the tire and the road surface (mechanical gripping of road surface irregularities by the elastic tire compound and transient molecular adhesion between the rubber and the road in which rubber is transferred to the road surface), so there are two very different sorts of braking friction - abrasive friction and adherent friction. Abrasive friction involves the breaking of the crystalline bonds of both the pad material and the cast iron of the disc. The breaking of these bonds generates the heat of friction. In abrasive friction, the bonds between crystals of the pad material (and, to a lesser extent, the disc material) are permanently broken. The harder material wears the softer away (hopefully the disc wears the pad). Pads that function primarily by abrasion have a high wear rate and tend to fade at high temperatures. When these pads reach their effective temperature limit, they will transfer pad material onto the disc face in a random and uneven pattern. It is this "pick up" on the disc face that both causes the thickness variation measured by the technicians and the roughness or vibration under the brakes reported by the drivers.

 

With adherent friction, some of the pad material diffuses across the interface between the pad and the disc and forms a very thin, uniform layer of pad material on the surface of the disc. As the friction surfaces of both disc and pad then comprise basically the same material, material can now cross the interface in both directions and the bonds break and reform. In fact, with adherent friction between pad and disc, the bonds between pad material and the deposits on the disc are transient in nature - they are continually being broken and some of them are continually reforming.

There is no such thing as pure abrasive or pure adherent friction in braking. With many contemporary pad formulas, the pad material must be abrasive enough to keep the disc surface smooth and clean. As the material can cross the interface, the layer on the disc is constantly renewed and kept uniform - again until the temperature limit of the pad has been exceeded or if the pad and the disc have not been bedded-in completely or properly. In the latter case, if a uniform layer of pad material transferred onto the disc face has not been established during bedding or break-in, spot or uncontrolled transfer of the material can occur when operating at high temperatures. The organic and semi-metallic pads of the past were more abrasive than adherent and were severely temperature limited. All of the current generation of "metallic carbon", racing pads utilize mainly adherent technology as do many of the high end street car pads and they are temperature stable over a much higher range. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch and the ultra high temperature racing pads are ineffective at the low temperatures typically experienced in street use.

Therefore - there is no such thing as an ideal "all around" brake pad. The friction material that is quiet and functions well at relatively low temperatures around town will not stop the car that is driven hard. If you attempt to drive many cars hard with the OEM pads, you will experience pad fade, friction material transfer and fluid boiling - end of discussion. The true racing pad, used under normal conditions will be noisy and will not work well at low temperatures around town.

Ideally, in order to avoid either putting up with squealing brakes that will not stop the car well around town or with pad fade on the track or coming down the mountain at speed, we should change pads before indulging in vigorous automotive exercise. No one does. The question remains, what pads should be used in high performance street cars - relatively low temperature street pads or high temperature race pads? Strangely enough, in my opinion, the answer is a high performance street pad with good low temperature characteristics. The reason is simple: If we are driving really hard and begin to run into trouble, either with pad fade or boiling fluid (or both), the condition(s) comes on gradually enough to allow us to simply modify our driving style to compensate.

Regardless of pad composition, if both disc and pad are not properly broken in, material transfer between the two materials can take place in a random fashion - resulting is uneven deposits and vibration under braking. Similarly, even if the brakes are properly broken, if, when they are very hot or following a single long stop from high speed, the brakes are kept applied after the vehicle comes to a complete stop it is possible to leave a telltale deposit behind that looks like the outline of a pad. This kind of deposit is called pad imprinting and looks like the pad was inked for printing like a stamp and then set on the disc face. It is possible to see the perfect outline of the pad on the disc.

It gets worse. Cast iron is an alloy of iron and silicon in solution interspersed with particles of carbon. At elevated temperatures, inclusions of carbides begin to form in the matrix. In the case of the brake disk, any uneven deposits - standing proud of the disc surface - become hotter than the surrounding metal. Every time that the leading edge of one of the deposits rotates into contact with the pad, the local temperature increases. When this local temperature reaches around 1200 or 1300 degrees F. the cast iron under the deposit begins to transform into cementite (an iron carbide in which three atoms of iron combine with one atom of carbon). Cementite is very hard, very abrasive and is a poor heat sink. If severe use continues the system will enter a self-defeating spiral - the amount and depth of the cementite increases with increasing temperature and so does the brake roughness.

 

SO HOW DO I PREVENT BRAKE SHUDDER/VIBRATION?

There is only one way to prevent this sort of thing - following proper break in procedures for both pad and disc and use the correct pad for your driving style and conditions. All high performance after market discs and pads should come with both installation and break in instructions.

Don't worry, the brake-in procedure is also good for the discs and will relieve any residual thermal stresses left over from the casting process (all discs should be thermally stress relieved as one of the last manufacturing processes) and will transfer the smooth layer of pad material onto the disc. If possible, new discs should be bedded with used pads of the same compound that will be used going forward.

Heat should be put into the system gradually - increasingly hard stops with cool off time in between. Part of the idea is to avoid prolonged contact between pad and disc. With abrasive pads (which should not be used on high performance cars) the disc can be considered bedded when the friction surfaces have attained an even blue color. With the carbon metallic type pads, bedding is complete when the friction surfaces of the disc are a consistent gray or black. In any case, the discoloration of a completely broken in disc will be complete and uniform.

Depending upon the friction compound, easy use of the brakes for an extended period may lead to the removal of the transfer layer on the discs by the abrasive action of the pads. When we are going to exercise a car that has seen easy brake use for a while, a partial re-bedding process will prevent uneven pick up.

 

I HAVE BRAKE SHUDDER/VIBRATION ALREADY.  HOW DO I FIX IT?

The obvious question now is "is there a "cure" for discs with uneven friction material deposits?" The answer is a conditional yes.  Simply fitting a set of good "semi-metallic" pads and using them hard (after bedding) may well remove the deposits and restore the system to normal operation but with upgraded pads. If only a small amount of material has been transferred i.e. if the vibration is just starting, vigorous scrubbing with garnet paper may remove the deposit. As many deposits are not visible, scrub the entire friction surfaces thoroughly. Do not use regular sand paper or emery cloth as the aluminum oxide abrasive material will permeate the cast iron surface and make the condition worse. Do not bead blast or sand blast the discs for the same reason.

Taking time to properly bed your braking system pays big dividends but, as with most sins, a repeat of the behavior that caused the trouble will bring it right back.