How to Make your barn or garage find road-worthy- Part Three Restoring the Brake System

If you've been following along the past few posts, I've been detailing some of the potential things you'll come across when putting your "barn find" or field fresh car back on the road after it's been sitting for a long time. Once you have the vehicle running and moving under its own power you'll surely want to drive it around your property to see what else it needs. The big thing that may kill the fun is the lack of brakes. In my particular case the front brakes were partially seized on and the brake pedal just went to the floor. I decided to completely disassemble the system and show how to go through the brakes on your classic car.

The first thing you should do is to check to see IF you even have any brake system pressure. Give the brake pedal a couple good stomps with your foot. In most cases your foot will go right to the floor, but if you're lucky the pedal may have some resistance. If it has resistance, is it solid, or does the brake pedal feel "spongy" or slowly drop as you put pressure on it? If either of those happen you may have air in your system or a leak somewhere. In my case I had wheels that were partially seized on and no brake pedal pressure at all.

My vehicle; a 1952 Chevy Styleline has a single circuit brake master cylinder where the front and rear brakes are all on the same circuit and you lose ALL brakes even if a leak occurs in the opposite corner. This means you don't get much of a second chance if the seals in the master cylinder go bad. Therefore I decided to replace the master cylinder all together. You'll probably have to swap some parts from your old master cylinder or pedal to the new master cylinder, so don't toss it in the trash right away! In my case I had to swap the pedal arm and some other rotating pieces. Once I had the master cylinder together I hit it with a coat of Brake Gray Paint to seal the exterior from corrosion in case I dripped brake fluid on it when filling.

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Once I had the new master cylinder bolted in place I wanted to make sure that my brake lines weren't clogged or stopped up with corrosion. I first removed the fittings from each end and blew aerosol injected cleaner through each one. The cleaner worked awesome and I continued to flush each line until clean, clear fluid came out of the opposite end. This also helped show me if there were any spots on the brake lines where there may be leaks before fully pressurizing the system. Once I was sure the lines were all clear I hooked the master cylinder ends of the fittings up to the master cylinder and decided to work on each corner.

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The first thing in a brake system that goes bad from sitting is the flexible rubber brake lines. These dry out and crack and while they may hold brake fluid, they're a ticking time bomb waiting to explode (or implode) and cause a leak or a soft brake pedal. Bend each line 90 degrees and check to see if you see any cracking in the rubber that opens up. If you see any major cracking, it's time to replace those lines. I would also go over all of the hard lines under the car and make sure there isn't any major corrosion or rust on the lines, especially where the mounting tabs or clamps cover the lines. Often times the lines rust under the metal tabs that hold the lines to the chassis and won't show themselves until the lines are fully pressurized.

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From here I like to take the brakes apart on each corner to make sure the pads or shoes themselves are in usable condition and also to check the movement of the calipers or wheel cylinders. In my case I knew a couple of the wheel cylinders were seized open and I decided to rebuild each cylinder. What I found was that the seals in the wheel cylinders had failed and over time had let the brake fluid seep past and when that dried it caused corrosion that locked the cylinder piston in place. I used a combination of small hooks and picks to clean in front of the piston and then I used a C-clamp to compress the pistons and brake them free. Once I cleaned the rest of the corrosion in front of the pistons out I used a blow nozzle and compressed air to force the pistons out. Make sure you aim the wheel cylinder in a bucket or box so the pistons don't go flying across the shop!

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Above you can see what I was working with, what a mess! Before I went any further I put the wheel cylinder housing in the vice and carefully broke each bleeder screw loose. Don't be surprised if yours break off and you have to drill them out and replace with new! Now that I was down to the wheel cylinder bare housing I checked the bore for any major pitting or scarring. If you see any major pitting or scoring, you may need to get a new wheel cylinder or housing. Regardless of how clean the bores are, you should hone them out to assure the pistons will slide freely.

Honing out the bore in a wheel cylinder is much like that of an engine block cylinder. You're trying to taking any haze, residue, or imperfections out of the bore. Wheel cylinders are a little more forgiving than an engine bore, but you can't just take a metal file and go nuts in there, you need to be delicate. There are wheel cylinder hones available on the market, but there's a free trick you can use to hone your cylinders using a cotter pin and a piece of 400 grit sandpaper.

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Take a piece of 400 grit sandpaper and hook it into the cotter pin and then wrap it around the cotter pin. Then chock the end of the cotter pin into your drill and slowly spin the sandpaper in the cotter pin in and out of the bore of the housing until it's smooth to the touch. I used one piece of sandpaper on the set of four housings and a little bit of Chassis clean to dissolve the heavier corrosion and residue in the housings.

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After all of the brake parts were rebuilt and replaced I filled the brake system and bled each corner with the Eastwood Brake Bleeder until the car had a firm brake pedal. Once I confirmed all four brakes were adjusted correctly I took the car out for a test drive to make sure the car didn't pull or lock up any wheel before another. I'm happy to report the car drives very nice and stops pretty well for having drum brakes all around!

-Matt/EW

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23 thoughts on “How to Make your barn or garage find road-worthy- Part Three Restoring the Brake System”

  • douglas birgfeld
    douglas birgfeld August 12, 2014 at 3:14 am

    this is a good refresher o what to do to get the old wheels rolling agin

    Reply
  • Drew Pierce

    Matt, Curious if you had to use more than one can of the Aerosol Injected Cleaner to complete the line cleaning?

    Reply
    • MattM

      I used a little over one can to complete this job, but I was pretty generous with how much I sprayed. One can should get you by if the lines aren't completely blocked.

      -Matt/EW

      Reply
  • Ken Malone

    On any single master cylinder brake system it is a must that you have a properly working park brake. Most cars have rusted or broken park brake cables. Install new cables and use the park brake often. If you lose your brakes because of a leak or failure of a wheel or master cylinder it is your last chance to save you and your car.

    Reply
  • Gary S.

    Matt, Curious as to what to do when the drum has become so corroded and frozen on the axle hub that you can't remove it. No matter how much heat, and monkey juice has been applied to soak. Brakes were frozen on rear axle so tightly, car would not roll. Previous owner had beat on drums and backing plate so profoundly they were ruined beyond use when I came to pick up the car. Now I have the problem of cost, and searching for new drums for my old Rambler convertible.

    Reply
    • MattM

      If the drum is already wrecked I'd get out the plasma cutter or cutting torch and cut it off. It's unfortunate, but sometimes you have to sacrifice parts that are seized that badly!

      Reply
      • Andrew

        I'm not sure if they're still available, but at one time you could rent a tool that's similar to a pulley puller, but specifically made for pulling brake drums.

        Reply
  • JimW

    Did you wrap the sandpaper around the cotter pin to match the size of the bore of the cylinder or just enough so you could move it around the inside?

    Reply
    • MattM

      Hi Jim,

      I did not match the bore, I just carefully worked around the cylinder under the corrosion/residue was off. The key is to make sure you are gentle when doing it so you don't flat spot anywhere in the bore.

      Reply
  • Mac McGinnis

    Matt - is the Aerosol Injected Cleaner you use the typical non-chlorinated brake parts cleaner in the aerosol can with the little dispensing tube, or is it something different? Thanks!

    Reply
    • MattM

      Mac,

      It’s a different formula than non-Chlor brakleen. It’s a milder acetone-based solvent so it wouldn’t damage o-rings in paint guns, but strong enough for grease and paint.

      Hope that helps,

      Matt/EW

      Reply
  • Dan Alford

    On my 59 Ford f100 barn find, I had to replace
    master cyl, all the lines, wheel cyls, and shoes.

    Reply
  • Chuck

    Problem I'm having is I can't get the drum off. The brake shoes are corroded to them and the outer ridge is sticking past the shoes. I got the shoes loose but the ridge still has it stuck. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
  • Steve Muehlhausen
    Steve Muehlhausen August 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Just acquired a 48 Fleetmaster. Permanently D flat tires, 3 stuck brakes.
    Need to drag out of barn. Don't want to flat spot new tires. How do I free up the drum brakes?

    Reply
    • MattM

      Oh nice score, I love those! I have a few ways to tackle this problem. The first is to try and lay under the vehicle and see if you can get to the shoe adjustment slots and use a screwdriver to turn the shoes in, if you're lucky the adjuster will spin and the shoes will contract enough to let you pull the wheel off. Another way is to jack the car up, take the nut, washers, and bearings off of the spindle and reinstall the wheel and lug nuts and use the wheel/tire as leverage to rock the drum attached to the wheel off. You can also hit the back the wheel/tire with a sledge, then rotate the wheel, hit another spot, etc, etc. Before I do any of this I usually will tap around the outside of the drum with a hammer to knock rust loose that may be holding you up. If these methods all fail you going to need to get primal and use a pry bar behind the edge of the drum prying and a hammer tapping the drum to try and "walk" it off of the shoes. If that doesn't work you can try heating around the drum with a torch and seeing if the heat and tapping the drum will help free it up. need to wreck or cut the drum off. Plasma cutter or firing up the cutting torch is your last ditch effort, just make sure you have spare drums ready to go back on if you need to roll it somewhere immediately!

      Reply
  • bill

    The cotter pin hone trick was great! Never thought of that.

    Reply
  • earle

    Have you ever used those "one man blender screws"?
    Also where can I find info on getting rid of all these double flair fittings? I'd like to do an alternative such as AN fittings or others? I know those can get pricey but surely there is other options. Thanks and good articles for the average person.

    Reply
    • MattM

      We offer the power bleeders on our site, they do work well.. but well I'm pretty oldschool and still prefer to have someone pump the pedal to bleed the brakes.. old cars, old ways! We don't have an article on doing that swap, but we do sell our professional flaring tool with an AN flare dies. The hardest/most expensive part would be finding the adapters and fittings to adapt from what is on the parts you can't change like the calipers, wheel cylinders, master cylinder, etc. I do think it is overkill and a properly flared double flare can easily hold any brake pressure you need. The key is getting a tool that makes consistent, nice flares like our pro flaring tool!

      Reply
  • Dick Bozarth

    Thr rubber brake hoses also have a nasty habit of swelling shut. They may look seviceable, but are totally obstructed. Might be a good idea to check that, too.

    Reply
    • MattM

      Very true! I don't even take the chance on an old car that's been sitting like this! I replaced ALL rubber flex lines in the brake system.

      Reply
  • Larry Reece

    You guys sell the BEST double flare tool out there. I cannot overstate how simple it is to use and how high the quality of the flares are. It's a little expensive, but the first time you use it, you know it is worth every penny. Great article thanks!

    Reply
  • Gerald Raymond

    I been doing this stuff along time what works the best is back off the adjuster first just to clear a ridge on the drum heating the is a bad idea never know what on the or he side you may have just ruined a good useable drum hit the drum as close to center as possible with good dead blow hammer but the reason I saw this article I noticed you were under the car and I did not see a jack stand just a bottle jack. I just finished a 1948 Ford with drum as that seemed impossible to get off just takes patient's

    Reply

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