Stop the squeal! Choosing the right brake pad compound is crucial for optimal stopping power and performance. Dive into this guide and learn how to pick the perfect pads for your driving style and vehicle.
Brake pads are the muscle of your vehicle’s braking system. When you hit the brakes, they clamp the brake rotors, creating friction that transforms your vehicle’s kinetic energy into heat. The bit of the pad that comes into contact with the rotors is called lining compound, friction material, or just compound. FYI this is not the metal part of the pad, the metal faces out to the caliper. These days, the most popular compounds are semi-metallic, organic, and ceramic. In this article, we will give you some insights about them, their pros and cons, and which one is best for your ride.
Types of Brake Pad Lining Compounds
Organic or Non-Metallic
These types of brake pads are the most affordable in the market. They are the modern version of the asbestos-based brake pads, which are now asbestos-free since asbestos and, even worse, its dust has been proven to be carcinogenic. Brake pad manufacturers have found substitutes for the infamous asbestos, such as rubber, carbon, kevlar, and other organic natural or synthetic materials.
These brake pads are usually soft, and that’s a good thing because they are gentle on the rotors and are often quiet compared with other compounds. However, their softness makes them more susceptible to damage by friction than their ceramic and semi-metallic counterparts. Besides, they don’t tolerate heat well and are prone to crystalize, producing a phenomenon called glazing that reduces their performance and makes them noisier and annoyingly screechy.
Pros and Cons of Organic or Non-Metallic Brake Compounds
- Affordable: Organic brake pads are among the cheapest in the market and have a good cost/benefit ratio. Even the options that contain Kevlar in their formula are affordable, making them a good alternative for small and light urban cars and everyday city driving.
- Quiet: Their composition and softness make them quiet even when installed on vehicles with scratched or uneven rotors. They quickly adapt to the rotors’ surface, reducing vibrations and keeping the noise levels low.
- Easy on the Rotors: When in good shape, they are less aggressive for the rotors than other compounds, making them a good alternative for vehicles with thin or worn rotors.
- Low Durability: They have a reduced lifespan compared with other compounds.
- Tend to Crystalize: They don’t tolerate heat well, so they are susceptible to crystalizing under extreme driving conditions or hard braking. Crystallized brake pads become noisy and can damage the rotors because the layer in contact with the brake pads hardens.
- Non-Heavy-Duty Friendly: Because they don’t tolerate heat well, they are not recommended for trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, or sportscars that, because of their weight or intended use, tend to put a lot of stress on the brakes.
- Dusty: Organic brake pads produce large amounts of debris and dust as they wear, which goes beyond making your wheels look dirty; brake pad dust can harm your brake calipers and even contaminate your brake fluid.
Semi-Metallic Brake Compounds
This compound was born in the early days of racing, before the glooming of ceramic brake pads in the racing scene. Nowadays, most commercial cars are equipped with these pads from the factory.
Semi-metallic brake pads have different performance levels and prices depending on their compounds, brand, and intended use. The most common compositions are a mixture of iron, copper, steel graphite, some organic materials, and other substances that help to deal with heat dissipation. The metals in the compound work as the friction element and also help dissipate heat. Thanks to their composition and heat resistance, these brake pads are tougher, long-lasting, and more fade-resistant than organic ones. Lastly, because of their composition and excellent heat resistance and dissipation properties, they provide a firm and consistent pedal feel, which is well-regarded by sporty driving aficionados.
Pros and Cons of Semi-Metallic Brake Compounds
- Durable: In terms of durability, semi-metallic brake pads are between organic and ceramic. They have an excellent average lifespan even under extreme driving conditions.
- Heat-Resistant: Thanks to their composition, they endure heat well, extending their lifespan and reducing brake fading.
- Heavy-Duty-Friendly: Thanks to their composition and heat resistance, semi-metallic brake pads are suitable for trucks, heavy-duty, and sports cars.
- Hard on the Rotors: These brake pads are harder on the rotors than organic and ceramic ones. Their hardness prevents them from molding to the brake rotors’ imperfections and can cause them to warp and even overheat.
- Noisy Over Time: Semi-metallic brake pads tend to get noisy. They harden over time, sometimes unevenly, due to their interaction and repetitive compression against the brake rotor. As they wear down, their surface becomes irregular, adding to the hardened material. This makes them vibrate even more and may result in squeaky and squealing sounds while braking.
- Quite dusty: They aren’t as dusty as organic brake pads. However, they leave a considerable amount of lining debris that is important to highlight.
Ceramic Brake Compounds
Ceramic pads hit the streets after ruling the racetrack. Built like high-tech pottery, they mix porcelain and clay with metal bits for grip and cooling superpowers.
Many years have gone by since the initial ceramic brake pads had trouble stopping effectively until they warmed up and weren’t suitable for everyday driving. However, manufacturers made improvements, making ceramic brake pads suitable for all types of vehicles and driving situations. They are no longer limited to exotic or high-performance cars. Nowadays, even most electric vehicles come equipped with ceramic pads straight from the factory. Additionally, these pads are widely available as aftermarket parts for nearly every type of vehicle.
Because of the materials and technology used for their development and construction, ceramic brake pads are often among the most expensive on the market. However, they are the best for every use, from daily driving to track and off-roading. They last way longer than their organic and metallic counterparts. Their rotors are extremely quiet throughout their lifespan and dust-free. Due to their firm pedal feel, they work well under most extreme conditions.
Pros and Cons of Ceramic Brake Compound Pads
- Durable: Ceramic brake pads are the most durable, even under extreme driving conditions.
- Easy on the Rotors: Ceramic brake pads are soft, making them more gentle on the rotors’ surface during braking. Besides, their compounds are designed to preserve the rotors’ surface, extending their lifespan.
- Dust-Free: Depending on the model, ceramic brake pads don’t produce noticeable dust or are dust-free. This is great for keeping the wheels clean, and it helps keep the brake system clean and extend its service life.
- Quiet: Thanks to their composition and design, ceramic compounds are smooth, absorb vibrations, and don’t crystalize, reducing the odds of brake squealing or squeaking to the minimum.
- Excellent Heat-Dissipation: Ceramics have excellent heat-dissipation properties, making this compound the most thermally efficient of the three. This helps keep the brake rotors and fluid cool and reduces brake fading and braking distances.
- Expensive: Ceramic brake pads are expensive; a good set can cost up to two times the price of a high-end metallic set of pads and more.
- Potential Rotor Wear: Even when ceramic brakes are gentle with the rotors, some older rotors are incompatible with this compound and may get damaged. That’s why you should check if your rotors are compatible with this compound, especially if you are driving a vintage or old-timer vehicle.
If you enjoy driving fast, going off-road, or just want the best braking power for your ride, go for a set of ceramic brake pads. You will find several options oriented to everyday use, track days, and more; you name it. If you want even more braking power, consider upgrading your brake rotors to enhance your vehicle’s stopping power even more. If you don’t want to break the bank, there are excellent semi-metallic brake pads available; however, some entry-level ceramic pad models cost almost the same as a top-notch set of metallic brake pads.
Lastly, organic brake pads are great when you have a small or light vehicle, drive in the city, and want a quiet set of brake pads. They are gentle on your rotors and allow you to have a fair stopping power at a reasonable price; just remember not to brake too hard too often to prevent them from crystallizing and becoming annoyingly loud.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more then check out our post on the differences between waxes, sealants and ceramics. In this article we go in depth on the loose definitions and how to navigate them.