Brake Calipers Explained – Braking The Rules

Posted By on November 22, 2015

Forty years ago, if you had what passed for a sportbike back then you had to put up with some pretty basic brakes. The cutting-edge technology of the time used drums: semi-circular brake shoes mounted inside an oversized wheel hub. When you pulled the brake lever, a cable turned a cam inside the hub, pushing the shoes out onto a drum inside the hub, thus slowing the bike down. They look archaic now, but offered good stopping power, albeit with little in the way of feel or control.

But in 1969, Honda’s CB750 introduced brand new braking technology. It was the first ever road bike to come with a single front brake disc, and the drum brake was relegated to the rear wheel.

Disc brake design is pretty simple in principle. Small pads of friction material are mounted inside a hydraulic caliper. When the lever is pulled, hydraulic pressure is transferred to the caliper and it pushes a piston out, forcing the friction pads against a disc. The caliper is mounted on a sliding bracket, so as the piston moves out, it first pushes the piston-side pad against the disc surface. Then, the whole caliper moves back on the sliding bracket, pulling the pad on the other side against the other side of the disc. These sliding calipers are often used on rear brakes now-they’re simple, light and cheap to make.

But sliding the caliper on a bracket wastes some braking effort. So, caliper designers began working on opposed-piston designs. In this design, the caliper is bolted solidly to the fork leg, and there’s a piston on each side of the caliper, facing inwards (hence ‘opposed’), and the hydraulic pressure from the lever is fed to each piston. When you pull the lever, both pistons move out together, clamping a brake pad onto each face of the disc and applying the braking force.

The braking force is produced by friction pads pushing onto the disc. But the effect of this force varies according to the size of the disc. If you use a larger disc, the force is applied at a further point from the wheel center, giving a larger leverage effect. You can feel this yourself with a cordless drill: if you grip the large part of the chuck, you can stop it from turning quite easily, but if you try to grip the narrow part it’s much harder to stop.

So, applying the braking force to a larger disc gives more braking force at the wheel. But larger discs are heavier, which adversely affects steering inertia, suspension movement and acceleration.

The trick is to make the braking area narrower (in the radial dimension), so the heavy, steel part of the disc is as narrow as possible. But then, with only one piston on each side of the caliper, the area the pad is working on ends up very small, making it hard to create enough frictional force.

The answer is to have more than one piston on each side of the caliper, making the pad wider and narrower. This gives more area for the pads to work on, increasing the friction without needing a deep, heavy disc. Adding more pistons gives a wider working area for the pad, and six, eight, or even ten piston calipers have all been made.

Brake caliper material needs to be rigid, light, sturdy and inexpensive. Fans of aluminum can wave your hands in the air-almost all brake calipers are made from the stuff, either cast or forged.

There are some more exotic options for the deep-pocketed and serious race teams though. Magnesium is even lighter than aluminum, and magnesium-alloy calipers are a pricey, yet still practical choice for racing. There’s been work done on using metal composite materials in calipers. Metal matrix composites use strands of carbon fiber suspended in aluminum, and in the future could make for an even lighter brake caliper.

The ideal caliper construction is the “monoblock” design which is, as the name suggests, made from one piece of metal. Clever tools cut out the hollows for the pistons and the channels for the hydraulic fluid from the inside of the caliper clamshell. This is expensive though, so most calipers are made up of two halves bolted together. These are much easier and quicker to machine and therefore cost less. The disadvantage is that they are less resistant to flex under load, so they waste more braking effort and reduce ‘feel’ through the lever.

A halfway house is to machine the piston bores from the outside of a monoblock caliper casting, then use a plug to close the outside holes up once the caliper is assembled. The blue, silver or gold centered Sumitomo calipers on Yamaha R1s, R6s and FZ1s use this technique, which falls between a pure monoblock and a two-piece caliper in terms of cost and complexity.

Most current sportbikes use radial mounted calipers, where the mounting bolts are arranged radially in relation to the wheel axle-parallel to the wheel spokes. This method has taken over from the ‘traditional’ mounting method, where the bolts are arranged parallel to the wheel axle, and it has a number of advantages.

Having the caliper mounted at each end makes a radial mount stiffer, and keeps the pads aligned more precisely. It also uses the bolts in a better engineering sense: a conventional mount has the bolts in a ‘shear’ position, which places more stress on the bolt shank than a radial mount. Radial mount bolts are used in a ‘tension’ position on the caliper bracket, which means they are under less stress and can therefore be lighter.