how to adjust drum brakes

Adjusting your drum brakes is one of those things that can really make or break your driving experience. When they’re properly adjusted, you get smooth, even braking power. But when they’re out of whack, look out! You might find yourself careening down the road with little control over stopping your vehicle. Yikes!

Luckily, adjusting drum brakes isn’t too tricky once you know what you’re doing. In this article, I’ll walk you through the whole process from start to finish. We’ll go over the tools you need, the steps to follow, and some tips and tricks along the way. By the time we’re done, you’ll be a pro at getting your drum brakes tuned up right. Sound good? Then let’s get rolling!

What Are Drum Brakes?

Before we dive into the adjustment process, let’s do a quick overview of what drum brakes are and how they work.

Drum brakes are a common type of brake used on the rear wheels of many vehicles. They get their name from the circular drum shape that houses the brake shoes. These shoes press outward when you hit the brakes, creating friction against the drum to slow your vehicle’s wheels.

Unlike disc brakes, drum brakes have lots of moving parts inside that drum housing. There are springs, levers, cables, and other hardware that connects the brake pedal to the shoes. All these pieces have to work together smoothly to ensure proper braking.

Over time, the brake shoes can wear down unevenly or get out of adjustment. That’s why it’s important to check and adjust your drum brakes periodically to keep everything in sync. Let’s look at how to do that now.

Gather Your Tools

Adjusting drum brakes doesn’t require a ton of specialty tools. Here’s a quick list of what you’ll need:

  • Brake adjusting spoon – This spoon-shaped tool fits into the adjuster mechanism and allows you to turn it to adjust the brakes. Essential!
  • Wheel chocks – These wedges go behind the front wheels to prevent rolling while the vehicle is jacked up. Safety first!
  • Jack and jack stands – To get the wheel off the ground for access to the brake. Make sure your jack capacity is sufficient for the vehicle weight.
  • Wheel lug wrench – For removing lug nuts so you can get the wheel off. The right size for your vehicle’s lug nuts is critical.
  • Flashlight – To see all the brake components tucked up inside the drum once the wheel is removed.
  • Grease or brake lubricant – Helps lubricate brake points to prevent binding and squeaking.
  • Hand cleaner and rags – Brake work gets dirty! Clean up tools when finished.

Optional extras: brake cleaning spray, brake inspection mirror, wire brush to clean brake parts if needed.

Now let’s get to it!

Step 1: Chock the Wheels and Jack Up the Vehicle

Safety first! We need to get the vehicle lifted safely off the ground to access the brakes.

Here are the steps:

  • Park vehicle on level, hard ground. Set parking brake.
  • Place wheel chocks securely behind front wheels on both sides.
  • Using the jack, lift the rear of the vehicle following the jack manufacturer’s instructions. Lift until rear tire clears the ground.
  • Position jack stands under rear axle or frame rails. Lower vehicle to rest securely on stands.
  • Remove rear wheel lug nuts and take off wheel. Set it aside.
  • Repeat on other side if adjusting both rear wheel brakes.

The vehicle is now ready for brake adjustment!

Step 2: Locate the Brake Components

With the wheel off, you’ll be looking at the brake backing plate. This is the metal plate behind the brake drum that holds all the brake hardware.

Here are the key components to identify:

  • Brake shoes – Curved metal arms lined with friction material that press outward against the drum.
  • Wheel cylinder – Hydraulic piston(s) that push shoes outward when braking.
  • Adjuster and adjuster lever – Mechanism that sets the inward position of the shoes. What we adjust!
  • Springs and hold-down parts – Return shoes to rest position and hold them in place.

Poke around with a flashlight and get familiar with everything. Understanding how the pieces fit together will help the adjustment process make sense.

Step 3: Adjust the Brakes

Here comes the actual adjustment! This is done with the brake spoon.

Follow these steps:

  • Insert spoon end into the adjuster mechanism. It may help to turn the wheel cylinder pistons back in fully first to provide slack.
  • Turn the adjuster mechanism with spoon clockwise to expand shoes outward. Do this in small increments, checking often.
  • Adjust until shoes make firm contact with drum inner surface. Spin drum to check for rub spots.
  • Back off adjuster counter-clockwise about 1/4 turn so shoes can retract from drum surface.
  • Check that wheel spins freely with no brake drag.

Aim for a snug fit without over-tightening. The small gap allows the shoes to retract and keeps the brakes from dragging.

Step 4: Reassemble, Test Brakes, and Complete Service

You’re so close to the finish line! Just a few more steps:

  • Double check all hardware and springs are hooked up properly. Refer to Step 2.
  • Give brake contact points a spray of lubricant to prevent sticking. Don’t get grease on friction surfaces.
  • Reinstall drum and wheel. Hand tighten lug nuts in criss-cross pattern.
  • Lower vehicle completely and torque wheel nuts to spec with torque wrench.
  • Remove jack stands and wheel chocks.
  • Before driving, test brakes at low speeds. Make sure they feel normal.
  • Complete any other brake service items like checking brake fluid or machining drums.

Then you’re all set! Go for a test drive and enjoy those confident, optimized brakes. Nice work!

Helpful Advice and Tips

Adjusting drum brakes for the first time? Here are some helpful pointers:

  • Work on one wheel at a time so the other side can be used for reference.
  • Mark original position of adjuster mechanism before turning. Helps gauge adjustments.
  • Adjust both sides evenly to prevent braking imbalance.
  • Adjust within limits – Don’t force adjuster past its natural stopping point.
  • Check manual for the recommended adjustment procedure and intervals for your vehicle.
  • If brakes are very out of whack, full brake service may be needed, including new shoes.
  • Listen for clicking sounds during adjustment to help gauge increments.
  • Having an assistant press the brake pedal can help check wheel spin and rub.

Let me know if any other tips would be helpful! Adjusting drum brakes is straightforward once you get the hang of it.

Common Adjustment Issues and Solutions

Of course, it’s not always a smooth road to a perfect adjustment. Here are some common issues that can pop up:

Brakes still drag after adjustment:

  • Lubricate brake contact points. Stuck parts can cause drag.
  • Make sure the self-adjuster is working properly. It may need cleaning or replacing.
  • Check for damaged or worn brake components causing misalignment.

Brakes squeak after adjustment:

  • Lubricate brake shoe contact points such as anchor pins and actuating levers.
  • Check for dirt or debris embedded in the brake lining. Clean as needed.
  • Uneven brake wear or glazing on shoes can cause noise. Replace shoes.

Brake pedal goes to floor:

  • Check for leaks or low fluid level in the hydraulic system. Top up and bleed if needed.
  • Make sure drum brakes are adjusted out far enough to fully contact shoes.
  • Inspect shoes and hardware for damaged, worn, or broken parts. Replace as required.

Vehicle pulls to one side:

  • Brakes may be unevenly adjusted side to side. Recheck and adjust both sides to equal tightness.
  • Stuck caliper piston on disc brake side can cause imbalanced braking. Repair as needed.

Let me know if you have any other issues come up! Proper diagnosis can usually get things smoothed out.

When to Seek Professional Help

While do-it-yourself brake service can save money, more extensive repairs are best left to the pros. Seek help from a professional mechanic if:

  • Brake problems persist after adjustment and at-home troubleshooting
  • Components are severely worn or damaged upon inspection
  • The adjustment involves disassembling major components like wheel cylinders
  • You don’t have the right tools or knowledge for the job
  • The vehicle must pass safety inspection after repairs

Drum brake service can be complex due to lots of moving parts. Having a professional mechanic take a look provides peace of mind that the repairs were done properly.


There you have it – everything you need to know to adjust your drum brakes like a pro!

While it may seem daunting at first, taking it slow and following each step carefully will get you there. Having the right tools on hand makes the job much smoother as well.

Keep in mind proper adjustment is key to safe, optimal braking. Don’t ignore the signs like brake squealing or drag. Addressing issues promptly by tuning up your drum brakes extends the life of all that hardware.

And if bigger problems arise, don’t hesitate to visit a professional mechanic for repairs. They have the expertise to diagnose issues and get your vehicle stopping safely.

Hopefully you feel empowered to DIY drum brake adjustment now. Let me know if any questions pop up along the way. I’m always happy to help steer you down the road to smooth, quiet brakes. Now get out there and stop with confidence!

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