Brake squeal is the result of high frequency vibrations caused during braking. I personally find it really annoying and it is usually quite easily eliminated by adding some toe-in to the brake pads. If your brake pads already have sufficient toe-in, check for alternative solutions below under ‘Preliminary Checks’.
There are already plenty of articles online explain how to add toe-in to modern brake pads, but many older ‘vintage’ style brake shoes do not have this capability. I discovered this problem when I installed 1980’s Super Record brakes on a Colnago Master and the front brake was squealing.
With vintage brakes, there are a few options to resolve this issue;
- Replace the vintage brake shoes & pads with a set of modern brake pads that are supplied with a conical washer which allows you to adjust toe-in to eliminate brake squeal. Modern brake pad materials will also improve braking performance and feel. Simple and effective fix, but at the expense of losing the original retro look and feel.
- File the brake pad so that the leading edge of the pad contacts the rim before the rear end. This would most likely need to be repeated with each pad replacement.
- Bend the brake calliper arms to add the required toe-in (which is minimal). A bit scary but you should only need to do it once. Park Tools used to sell a tool specifically designed for this job, but it became redundant with the advent of conical washers fitted to modern brake shoes.
What is Brake Pad Toe-in?
Toe-in is when the front end of the brake pad makes contact with the surface of the rim before the rear end of the brake pad. When brake pads are setup with NO toe-in, usually the entire surface of the brake pad will initially contact the rim – which often results in brake squeal.
How does Toe-in Eliminate the Squeal?
Toe-in actually works by ensuring braking pressure is more evenly distributed across the brake pad when braking. As the rotational force exerted by the rim onto the brake pad tries to pull the brake pad in the direction of travel it exerts more pressure on the rear end of the pad. By adding toe-in, we counter this action so braking forces actually straighten the pad to the rim providing more even pad contact pressure and reduce vibrations (ie. squeal).
WARNING! The brakes on your bicycle are an important safety component. Please read my disclaimer at the end of this article before attempting any repairs or adjustments to your own bike.
Also I recommend you read the entire article before starting any work.
BEFORE you bend your calliper arms, try this simple checklist first, as the problem may be related to something that can be easily rectified.
- Double-check your brake pads definitely do NOT allow any toe-in adjustment, you wouldn’t want to bend the callipers unnecessarily.
- Clean and sand the contact surface of the brake pads to expose a fresh, non-glazed braking surface.
- Clean the rim to ensure there is no contamination on the braking surface.
- Check the rim is true and braking surface is not damaged (may not fix squeal, but good for overall braking performance and safety).
- Make sure the brake is securely mounted to the bike frame with no play.
- Make sure that the brake calliper arms also have no play. Any sloppiness in the brake mount, calliper arms or brake pads could be the cause.
- Check the brake calliper arms are centered to the rim ie. we want both brake pads to touch the rim at the same time (again may not fix squeal, but good for overall braking performance – especially in dual pivot brakes. Note: vintage brakes are usually a side-pull single pivot design).
If the issue is not solved with the above checks, you may need to bend the calliper arms. I have described the steps below that I used, but the process is open to variations.
Bending the Calliper Arms
When I first read about this process online, I was quite hesitant. I wasn’t keen on bending some valuable vintage component, but after further research, I discovered that this was how it was done by many a bike mechanic ‘back in the day’. I also read a few posts from people whom did not recommend this procedure, but I found it to be very effective and the brakes have performed flawlessly and been noise free since. The bend required is very minimal.
- You will need a spanner or allen key to remove the brake pads.
- 2 x adjustable wrenches of preferably the same size.
- Duct tape is also good if you want to protect the finish of your calliper arms.
- Some kind of bike work stand is also useful.
- If you already have 1 to 2mm of toe-in and the brakes still squeal, I would check with a bike shop before adding extra toe-in as there may be another underlying issue causing the noise.
- Remember you only need to add 1 to 2mm of toe-in to the pads to eliminate the brake squeal which means the calliper arms will only need a MINOR adjustment to achieve this. So I recommend you start GENTLY, check the result and repeat gradually applying more pressure only if required. Be patient and repeat a few times if necessary, better than over-bending the calliper arms.
- Try to bend both arms equally so the toe-in setting is the same for both brake pads to achieve optimal performance.
- Use some duct tape to prevent damage to the finish of your brakes by eliminating metal on metal contact between the adjustable wrench and calliper arms.
- Before removing the brake shoes from the callipers, take a look at each pad to see if the pad is fully enclosed in the brake shoe, or if there is one open side (which allows you to slide the brake pad out for replacement).
If your brake shoe does have one open side, it is VERY important to fit the pad back to the correct calliper arm. If they are fitted incorrectly, the brake pad can be ejected during stopping = BAD! This is explained later in more detail.
I started out VERY gently bending my Campagnolo Super Record calliper arms. I gradually had to increase the pressure over a number of repetitions to achieve 1 to 2mm of toe-in I needed. I was amazed at how strong and stiff the alloy calliper arms on these brakes are.
How to Bend the Calliper Arms
Hopefully you only need to fix one brake (most likely the front brake as this is where most of the stopping power is). These steps may need to be repeated a few times to achieve the desired toe-in.
- Mount the bike in a work stand (if you have one).
- Squeeze the brake lever and check both pads contact the rim at the same time. Otherwise you should centre the brake callipers first.
- Squeeze the brake lever so the pads just contact the rim.
- Make a mental note of the angle at which the pads currently meet the rim and how much toe-in already exists, mine were completely square to the rim with no toe-in.
- Release the brake levers.
- Open the brake quick release lever (if you have one).
- Remove the wheel from the bike.
- Remove both brake pads.
- Apply duct tape to protect the finish of the calliper arms.
- Fit the 2 adjustable wrenches onto the lower flat section of each calliper arm (as pictured above and below).
- When bending the FRONT brake calliper arms, I pushed the handles of each wrench INWARD with equal pressure (pushing the handles toward each other).
- Re-fit the brake pads back to the calliper arms loosely
- Re-fit the wheel to the bike.
- Close the brake quick release lever.
- Now align the pads with the rim, and tighten the nuts just enough to keep the pads in their correct location.
- Squeeze the brake lever so the brake pads NEARLY touch the rim and check if the required toe-in has been achieved on both sides.
- Once you have successfully added a little toe-in, tension the brake pad nuts to the correct torque setting and follow the ‘Prepare for a test ride’ section below.
Prepare for a Test Ride
Now that you have successfully added some toe-in to the pads, it is a good idea to do a quick test ride because we only want to add enough toe-in to eliminate the squeal. BEFORE you test ride the bike, carry out the following safety checks listed below. I also recommend you test ride on a flat road, with no cars just in case there is a problem with the brakes.
- Check brake pads are correctly aligned to the rim.
- Check brake pad fixing nuts are tensioned to the correct torque.
- Check the brake calliper quick release lever is closed.
- Check the brake shoes are fitted in the correct orientation as explained below.
When fitting brake pads to the callipers, it is EXTREMELY important to have the brake shoes fitted in the correct orientation if one side is open (ie. no metal tab).
The open end is designed to allow easy replacement of the brake pad and is a feature of Campagnolo vintage brake shoes. However, this also means you need to be very careful when fitting the brake shoes to the calliper arms. The metal tab must be facing toward the front of the bike, otherwise braking forces can pull the brake pad out of the shoe leaving you with NO brakes. If in doubt, get your local bike shop to check your setup is correct.
Hopefully you have successfully removed the brake squeal from your vintage bike.
Is this all sounds a bit daunting , don’t be afraid to take your bike to a local bike mechanic who will be able to perform these procedures pretty quickly and for a minimal charge, I would expect. There is no need to endure noisy brakes, life is too short – enjoy your time in the saddle.
I hope you found this article interesting. I have listed the following website pages as general references.
Please remember that this information is only to be used as a guide.
I consider myself an enthusiast, not an expert. The information I have presented in this article is based on my many hours of online research.
Whilst I enjoy working on my own bikes, I am not a qualified bicycle mechanic. The content of this article is purely illustrative and does not constitute professional advice. For your own safety, any type of work should only be undertaken by a qualified bicycle mechanic. Incorrect assembly of parts could result in equipment damage, personal injury or death.
I welcome reader feedback in the comments section. Should you wish to suggest an amendment, please include a note advising the source of your information so that myself and other readers can ascertain the accuracy of your information. Note: Trolling or argumentative comments will be removed as they are counter-productive.