Need to know how to remove rust from brake rotors? Follow these 16 detailed steps to make your brake rotors rust-free and looking new again.
- Drive the vehicle to remove light rust from braking surface
- Park the vehicle on a level, solid surface
- Set wheel chocks
- Loosen the lug nuts on one wheel
- Lift the wheel off the ground with a floor jack and set a jack stand
- Remove the lug nuts & the wheel
- Remove the brake calipers & pads
- Remove the brake rotor
- Soak the brake rotor in a rust removal bath
- Scrub the rotor with steel wool and a stainless steel wire bristle brush
- Clean with brake cleaner spray & wipe down
- Paint the rotor hub (optional)
- Reinstall the brake rotor and caliper
- Reinstall the wheel & lug nuts and lower vehicle to the ground
- Tighten lug nuts to manufacturer torque specs
- Test drive to ensure proper reassembly
Tools & Products Needed
- Wheel chocks
- Lug nut wrench
- Floor jack
- Jack stand
- Length of pipe to use for additional leverage (breaker bar)
- Socket wrench set (standard for domestics/ metric for imports)
- Wire hanger or wire
- Rubber mallett
- Latex gloves
- Bucket or basin (large enough to fit a brake rotor)
- Steel wool
- Wire-bristle brush
- Brake rotor paint, painters tape (optional)
- 6-inch or larger C-clamp
- Runoff catch tray
- Clean rags (non-oily)
- Torque wrench
- Brake cleaner spray
- Rust remover solution or distilled white vinegar
Rusty brake rotors are ugly. Rather than buying new ones, make your old rotors look new again, or in some cases, better than new. Yes, there are 16 steps here, but don’t be intimidated. I’ll walk you through exactly how to do this properly and safely.
16 Steps to Remove Rust from Brake Rotors
Step 1: Drive the Vehicle to Remove Light Rust from Braking Surface
If you have just washed your car, or it hasn’t been driven in a while, light rust can form on your rotors’ braking surface. This is normal.
To remove the rust, drive the vehicle. As you brake, your brake pads will contact the rotors and remove the light surface rust.
In more extreme cases, the rust accumulates on the pads, which results in squeaky brakes. In this case, replace the brake pads.
Chances are, you’re not here to learn how to remove surface rust from the braking surface after a car wash. In which case, keep reading.
Step 2: Park the Vehicle on a Level, Solid Surface
Find a place to work that is flat and solid. A garage or driveway is ideal. If don’t have access to either, use your best judgement. You’ll be using a floor jack and jack stands, so the ground needs to be hard enough to keep the jack and jack stands from sinking.
Once you’re parked, don’t engage the parking brake. This could make future steps very difficult.
Step 3: Set Wheel Chocks
Wheel chocks will keep your vehicle from moving while it’s on a floor jack. You don’t want your car to roll while it’s jacked up. That is very dangerous.
Choose the wheel you’ll work on first. If it’s a front wheel, place chocks around the back wheels. If you work on a back wheel first, place wheel chocks in the front.
If you don’t have proper wheel chocks, the next best thing is a 2×4 board or similar. It’s not ideal, but will normally do the job on relatively flat surfaces.
Step 4: Loosen the Lug Nuts on One Wheel
Once you’ve selected the wheel you’ll work on first, loosen each of the lug nuts with a lug nut wrench.
Most, if not all, vehicles come from the factory with a lug nut wrench. Find this, and use it if you don’t have anything else. It’ll normally be near the spare tire or behind/under a seat.
Only loosen the lug nuts. Do not remove them yet.
If the lug nuts are tight and difficult to turn, use a length of metal pipe to extend the leverage on your lug nut wrench. An impact drill works well here too.
Step 5: Lift the Wheel Off the Ground with a Floor Jack and Set a Jack Stand
Use a floor jack (one is usually included with your car from the factory) to lift the wheel off the ground. Be sure the place the jack in a solid location. The frame is ideal.
You don’t need to lift the wheel off of the ground very far. A half inch or so will do.
Once the wheel is off the ground, place a jack stand near the jack, on the frame. The jack stand is a fail-safe in case the jack fails or tips over. Do not skip this step.
Step 6: Remove the Lug Nuts & the Wheel
With the wheel off the ground, finish loosening each of the lug nuts until they come off. Set those aside.
When all of the lug nuts have been removed, lift the wheel off of the wheel hub with both hands. Wheels and tires can be heavy, so if you need a second person to help you, get them now.
Set the wheel off to the side carefully so you don’t damage the wheels.
Step 7: Remove the Brake Calipers and Pads
With the brake assembly exposed, you have a choice to make:
- Remove rotor rust with the rotors on the vehicle (easier but less thorough)
- Remove rotor rust with the rotors off of the vehicle (more steps, but better result)
If you choose to keep the rotors on the vehicle, skip this step. Don’t remove the brake calipers and pads. Work to remove the rust from the rotors using brake cleaner, steel wool, and a wire brush. Wipe with a clean microfiber towel.
For better results, and more thorough rust removal, remove the brake calipers and pads.
Most vehicles have two bolts that secure the caliper to the vehicle. Locate these bolts on the back of the caliper. Loosen these bolts with a socket wrench and set aside.
With the caliper bolts removed, slide the caliper / pad assembly off of the rotor. The brake line is still attached so be careful not to damage it. Use a wire hanger or similar to hold the caliper up and out of the way while not putting strain on the brake line.
Step 8: Remove the Brake Rotor
With the brake caliper off, the rotor should be loose. If it is, grab it with two hands and pull it off.
If the brake rotor is not loose, give it a few taps with a rubber mallet. Do not use a metal hammer. It will damage the rotor.
A few taps with a rubber mallet will break it loose and allow you to remove it.
Set the rotor aside. Do not place the rotor with the braking surface on the ground. Handle the rotor in a way that protects the braking surface.
Step 9: Soak the Brake Rotor in a Rust Removal Bath
Put latex gloves on. Fill a bucket or basin with the rust removal solution of your choosing. There are many good solutions available. Our favorites include:
- Rust-Oleum Rust Dissolver
- Fertan Rust Converter
- Metal Blast – Rust Bullet Rust Remover
- Evapo-Rust Rust Remover
- White distilled vinegar
Completely submerge the rotor in the rust removal solution. For best results, follow the manufacturers instructions on the container.
In most cases, you’ll let the rotor soak in the solution for an hour or more. The chemicals in the solution will break down the rust.
Step 10: Scrub the Rotor with Steel Wool and a Stainless Steel Wire Bristle Brush
After the rotor has soaked in the rust remover solution for the recommended time, pull it out and scrub it with steel wool or a stainless steel wire brush. Focus on the areas that still look rusty.
After scrubbing, place the rotor back into the rust removal solution. Continue this process until all of the rust is gone.
Step 11: Clean with Brake Cleaner Spray & Wipe Down
With all of the rust gone, remove the rotor from the bucket or basin. Place it on a clean towel and proceed to spray it with brake cleaner.
Brake cleaner removes anything that might still be on the rotor, especially oil or grease.
Wipe it down.
At this point, the rotor should be looking like new again.
Step 12: Paint the Rotor Hub (Optional)
If you choose, this would be the best time to paint the rotor hub. A painted rotor hub will prevent future rust, as bare metal will rust again the next time it’s exposed to water.
Use proper brake rotor paint, as it needs to be able to withstand high temperatures.
Tape off the rotor’s braking surface to ensure no paint gets on it. Proceed to paint the rotor. Let dry completely before reinstalling on your vehicle.
Step 13: Reinstall the Brake Rotor & Caliper
To reinstall the brake rotor, line up the wheel hub bolts with the holes in the rotor and slide it on.
To reinstall the brake caliper, first remove the brake pads. With the pads out, use a c-clamp to push the hydraulic pistons back into the caliper. The purpose of this step is to create space between the pads and the rotor so it will slide back on easily.
With the hydraulic pistons pushed back, reinstall the brake pads and slide the caliper back on to the rotor. Line up the two bolt holes on the back of the caliper and insert the bolts. Tighten the bolts to manufacturer’s torque specs with a torque wrench.
Put a catch tray underneath and spray it all with brake cleaner one more time.
Step 14: Reinstall the Wheel & Lug Nuts and Lower Vehicle to the Ground
With the brake assembly back together and tight, put the wheel and tire back on to the wheel hub. Line up the lug bolts with the corresponding holes in the wheel and slide it on.
Hand tighten the lug nuts.
With the wheel back on and the lug nuts hand tight, remove the jack stand and lower vehicle with the jack. Remove the jack.
Step 15: Tighten Lug Nuts to Manufacturer Torque Specs
With the tire on the ground, tighten the lug nuts with a lug wrench or impact drill. Tighten in a cross pattern. Meaning, tighten one lug nut, then tighten the one across from it on the opposite side of the lug pattern. Do this until all lug nuts are tight.
Finish by checking each lug nut with a torque wrench to make sure they been torqued to manufacturer’s specs.
Step 16: Test Drive to Ensure Proper Reassembly
Take your vehicle for a quick drive to make sure it all feels and sounds right.
You’re done! Stand back and admire your work.
Repeat these 16 steps for each of your rusty brake rotors.
Warnings & Things to Avoid
- Do not spray WD-40 or any other lubricant on the rotor or the brake pads: Doing so will make your brakes ineffective. If it happens, be sure to clean it off with proper brake cleaner spray.
- Do not use a metal hammer to loosen stuck rotors: It might be tempting to use a metal hammer to loosen stuck-on brake rotors, but don’t do it. A metal hammer will damage the rotor and you’ll have to replace it.
- Tighten caliper bolts and lug nuts to factory specs: Because brakes are critical to the safety of your vehicle, take the time to look up the torque specs for the caliper bolts and lug nuts. You’ll enjoy the peace of mind knowing it was done right.
- Take it to a shop for inspection: It’s always a good idea to have a local auto repair or tire shop inspect your brakes and check your torque specs after a project like this.
- Always use a jack stand: Because you’ll be working to remove the caliper bolts, always use a jack stand. In case the jack tips over, the jack stand will keep the vehicle from falling on the ground or on you.
What causes brake rotors to rust?
Rust occurs when iron particles have been exposed to oxygen and water. When you drive, inevitably your brake rotors get wet. When the iron in the rotors is exposed to water and air, rust begins to form.
You can prevent this by painting the non-braking surfaces of your rotors. The paint prevents water from touching the metal.
How to clean brake rotors?
Clean brake rotors with proper brake cleaner spray. Brake cleaner spray is a degreaser that evaporates quickly. The cleaner will not interfere or impede your ability to stop. Don’t use anything else to clean your rotors.
How to remove brake rotor rust without removing the wheel?
It’s possible to remove some rust from your brake rotors with the wheels on, but it’s tough. You’ll struggle to be thorough with the wheels on. Also, brake cleaner can damage the clear coat on your wheels.
Just take the wheels off to remove the rust from your rotors.
To remove the rust from brake rotors, remove the wheel, caliper and rotor. Soak the rotor in rust remover and scrub until the rust is gone. Reassemble.
Paint the non-braking surfaces of the rotor to prevent future rust corrosion.
Now that your brake rotors look new again, explore our other exterior detail guides and find your next project that’ll make your vehicle look even better.