Nothing ruins the look of a sharp new set of wheels like dirty, corroded calipers lurking from behind the spokes. While in the past calipers often functioned in obscurity behind wheel covers, today’s trend towards larger and thinner spoked wheels leaves no place for them to hide. So how do we turn shy dull calipers into bold sporty vixens? With the car equivalent of a pedicure!
Now, not just any shiny paint will do. Your brake system gets hot so a typical off-the-shelf spray paint won’t hold up. The widely available caliper painting kits include everything you need and cuts out a lot of the guesswork. Or to save a few bucks, you can buy cans of high temperature caliper/engine enamel and brake parts cleaner individually.
Remove the Calipers or Leave Them Attached?
Like with any paint job, the best way to do it is to take the part you’re painting off the car. But removing your calipers involves disconnecting the brake line which introduces air into your system. This means you’ll have to bleed the brakes when you’re done – one of the reasons why so many enthusiasts prefer to do the job with the calipers still attached. With careful attention to masking off the rotor, pads and pistons you can get great results without having to disassemble your calipers.
1. Remove the Wheels
Before jacking up the car, break the lug nuts loose about half a turn so you don’t need as much torque when the wheels are in the air. If you have 4 jack stands and can get the car completely off the ground, it’ll save a lot of time by allowing you to hit up all four calipers at once. By the time you get done with the last caliper, the first one will be ready for another coat of paint.
If you don’t have enough jack stands or just don’t feel comfortable taking the car completely off the ground then do one side (front and rear) at a time. Even though it will take a little longer, it sure beats having your car tip off the jack stands and crush the underbody.
Set your parking brake and block the wheels on the side that’s going to remain on the floor with a brick or wheel chock to prevent the car from rolling. Jack up the opposite side until the front and rear wheels are off the floor. You don’t have to go too high, just enough to slide the jack stands underneath. Position the two stands under strong points of the frame, one towards the front of the car and the other towards the rear. Then slowly lower the car until it rests on the jack stands. Finish removing the lug nuts and pull off the wheels.
2. Clean the Calipers
I know, cleaning blows. But this is the most important part of the process and where you should plan on spending the majority of your time. The slightest amount of brake dust or grease left on the calipers will prevent the paint from adhering properly causing it to flake off within a few months, sometimes sooner.
But safety first! Brake dust from older cars may contain asbestos which increases your chances for developing lung cancer so put on a dust mask before you get started. Also, the caliper and brake parts cleaner contains harsh chemicals that can damage your skin so protect your eyes and hands with safely glasses and gloves. I like wearing long dish washing gloves for this so I don’t have to worry about splatter getting on my arms.
If you’re using a kit, many of them will instruct you to just spray the cleaner thoroughly and then paint. Brake grease and dust is not easy to remove, especially if it’s caked on for a long time. So I think it’s highly optimistic that one spray can will get it all for all four calipers.
Round 1: Dish Soap & Water
I like to start by hosing down the caliper to remove the loose grit and grime and then giving it a good scrub with a little dish soap and water using a wire brush. Be sure to get all the rust and crevices but don’t get so rough that you gouge the plating. You also want to avoid scratching the rotors and backs of your brake pads. The goal is just to remove the bulk of the dirt on the caliper so your brake parts cleaner can work more efficiently on the rest. If you have a steam cleaner, it’ll dissolve the initial gunk like a champ.
Round 2: Caliper/Brake Parts Cleaner
Mask off all nearby rubber parts including the brake hose, sliding pin dust boots and bleeder screw. Some of these cleaners can eat through rubber or other soft components over time. It’s also a good idea to mask off the paint around the wheel wells because the cleaning solution sprays out under high pressure and causes some ricochet which could end up on the paint – yeah, some cleaners like eating that too.
Blast your caliper with the caliper/brake parts cleaning spray and give it another scrub down with your wire brush. Repeat if necessary and do a final blast just to get rid of any micro-debris or traces of grease you loosed up and left behind from scrubbing. Now you’re ready for paint!
Round 3: Isopropyl Alcohol, Mineral Spirits or Lacquer Thinner (optional)
Brake parts cleaners generally don’t leave any residue behind so you can start painting once it dries off but I like to wipe down the entire area with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol with a clean, lint-free rag or paper towel as a final step in case any micro-debris or grease got caught up in any of the crevices during the final blasting step or there are any traces of the brake cleaner left. Lacquer thinner works great too but takes a little longer to dry.
3. Mask the Rotor & Brake Pads
Mask everything you don’t want painted, especially if you’re working with spray paint. Gently push pieces of newspaper between the caliper clamp and backs of the brake pads with a flat head screwdriver to prevent paint from seeping into the pistons. Plastic bags are also convenient for wrapping rotors and brake lines. Finally, throw down some newspaper or a piece of cardboard on the floor under the caliper to catch any paint drips. At this point, everything in the wheel well except the caliper and bracket should be covered.
4. Paint the Calipers
Some kits come with a paint can and brush while others come with a spray can. I prefer to use the brush because it’s easier to get all the nooks and crannies with better precision. When you try to spray over an irregular surface it’s often tempting to move the can closer to a hard-to-reach spot and end up with runs.
Apply about four thin and even coats using the paint brush and wait 15 minutes between each coat. If you only have a spray can, use a small plastic container to spray some paint in for your brush. The coverage won’t be very good at first but the color will appear more and more opaque as you add each layer. Thin coats applied with even strokes gives you the smoothest finish and minimizes brush marks (assuming you’re using a high quality brush).
Your color should look consistent now, especially if you’re using a brush-on kit. But if you need a little more uniformity, add another coat or two. Or, if you have a spray can apply four to six light coats by gently misting your calipers. The 15 minute rule between coats applies here too.
The combination of using a brush and then finishing off with a spray helps to even out surface imperfections and gives your calipers a powder coated look.
5. Allow Paint to Fully Cure
I know, your calipers look like a masterpiece and you’re probably feeling a strong humanitarian urge to slap on your wheels and go out to share them with the world. But not so fast! Although the paint may feel dry to the touch within a few hours, it won’t be fully cured and hardened for 24 hours. Handling your calipers before then can dent or scrape the soft paint which leads to chips and peels later.
Once a full 24 hours have passed, unmask the area and carefully inspect your calipers for drips or clumps of thick paint. Sand those down or use a little acetone to thin them out – perfecto! Put your wheels back on and lower the car to the ground.
Now you’ve denied us the chance to gaze upon your magnificent calipers long enough – get out and drive!
- Check that your slide pin seals and caliper seals are okay and re-lube the brake components in case some of the grease was flushed out during the cleaning process.
- Consider switching your brake pads to higher quality ceramic pads. They not only generate less dust (keeping your calipers clean) but they can handle high brake temperatures with less heat fade, provide faster recovery after a stop, and reduce wear on both the pads and rotors.
- If you’re doing this in colder weather or as a winter project, soak the spray can in a bucket of hot water. This allows the paint to atomize into smaller particles and give you more uniform coverage.
- If your paint is taking longer than about 15 minutes to dry and you’re painting within the temperature and humidity range suggested on the product, you’re probably applying too thick a coat.
- Be careful using a wire wheel in conjunction with brake cleaner on your calipers. Some formulas are flammable and when you throw in the possibility of a spark generated by your wire wheel …well, you do the math.
Photo: castletron629 | Imgur