When it comes to the category of brakes, drums seem to be the dinosaur of them all. Even so, drum brakes work on the same basic principle as disc brakes – shoes press against a spinning surface. A brake drum is a smooth metal cylindrical housing that is attached to the rear wheel hub. They are made from cast iron and are literally named after their obvious “drum-like” shape. The friction between the brake shoes and drums causes your car to slow down and stop. Most new cars from 1999 and above come with rotors at each of their wheels. Older cars may have drum brakes on the rear wheels and disc brakes on the front.
Automotive brakes use friction to convert a vehicle’s momentum into heat. When you step on the brake pedal in your car, a piston in the master cylinder pushes hydraulic fluid through tubes to the braking system at each wheel. With drum brakes, a hydraulic cylinder/piston complement pushes each shoe outward and into contact with the inner surface of the rotating drum. The brake shoe lining material creates a friction force against the drum, which slows down and ultimately stops the wheel completely. Brake shoe material is designed to prevent noise and withstand excessive heat; even so, it’s important to watch your brakes.
Drum brakes have more parts than disc brakes and are a little harder to service. However, they are less expensive to manufacture and easily incorporate an emergency brake mechanism. As the drums wear out, they can become warped and/or grooved. At that point, the drums are unable to dissipate the heat caused by the braking system. This causes the brake fluid to boil and weaken its ability to slow and stop a vehicle. The enclosed, all-in-one design of brake drums makes maintenance and servicing a little easier, as most components are held in place by spring tension. Once the drum is removed, replacing brake shoes on some cars can be accomplished in under 5 minutes.
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