How Do I Choose The Right Brake Pads?
Eenie, meenie, miny, moe.
While not as controversial a topic as “ What oil should I put in my bike?” the question of what brake pads to use will still draw up tons of varying opinions from every corner of the internet. Yes, we know we’re another corner of the internet, but this post isn’t here to tell you which pads to put in your motorcycle. Instead, we’re here to inform you about the different options you have and why they are the way they are. Knowledge is power, and if you’re informed on your options, then you can make the right choice for your needs.
Besides, if you end up not liking whatever pads you chose, just chuck’em and try another pair. They’re relatively cheap and easy to install.
Brake Pads 101
If you want to take a deep dive into the details of brake pads, the specific formulas and ingredients used to make them, coefficients of friction, and the chemistry behind their performance, look elsewhere. There is a fair bit of literature from reputable sources that can explain all of these things much better than we can. Here, we’ll go over the three most common types of pads, give a brief overview of what they are, then give the pros and cons of each. This should get you started on your journey towards picking the right pads for your application.
In general, brake pads, like other consumables on your bike, present a compromise. Longevity, performance, and feel are but a few of the factors to consider. So, without further ado, let’s get into it. First up…Organic Brake Pads
Organic brake pads use friction material comprised of, well, organic material. We’re talking carbon-based components (like glass), ceramic pieces, and other fibers. Essentially, things that come from the earth. After being formed with pressure, an adhesive pairs the organic friction material to the backing plate.
When used on stainless steel rotors, which the vast majority of motorcycles come equipped with from the factory, organic pads tend to have a soft initial bite and less overall performance than sintered or semi-sintered pads (more on those in a minute). Because organic pads typically have less performance, users tend to apply more brake pressure to compensate (a generalization, of course), which is one reason organic pads tend to produce more brake dust. Also, wet or cold conditions can prove challenging for some organic brake pads, though too much heat is also a detriment to organic pads.
So far, you may not be very impressed with organic pads. However, historically, when paired with a cast iron rotor and used in a performance setting, organic pads can actually perform quite well and give linear feedback to the rider. Best of all, organic pads are usually less expensive than their sintered or semi-sintered counterparts.Sintered Brake Pads
On the opposite end of the brake pad spectrum we have sintered pads. Sintered pads are made from metals, usually copper alloy, along with shards of other materials. The precise composition of metals used depends on the performance levels the manufacturer is aiming for. These metals are then subjected to heat and pressure to form the friction material. Depending on the manufacturer, the material is attached to the backing plate mechanically via hooks or is fused directly to the backing plate while it’s still being subjected to heat and pressure.
Because their composition can be tailored to specific requirements, sintered pads offer great performance and are typically the pads used from the factory. When developed for a street application, sintered pads come up to temperature very fast, offer great stopping power in all kinds of weather conditions, and also last a while. Continuing the performance theme, sintered pads are also a good choice for sportbike and/or track environments because track-specific sintered pads are developed for the demands of track riding. They can offer increased stopping power and better feel.
A subset of the sintered category are ceramic brake pads. I call it a subset instead of its own category because ceramic material is used instead of the metal content used in sintered pads. Otherwise, the concept is largely the same – heat and pressure form the ceramic pad and it’s attached to the backing plate in similar ways as the sintered pads. The main goal is optimum braking performance for racing applications. Ceramic materials are best equipped to handle the high heat loads generated under racing conditions, but this also means they take longer to get up to temperature, rendering them less desirable for street applications. Some say ceramic pads also have less bite and feel than sintered pads, but it’s a matter of taste, really.
Sintered pads tend to be more expensive than organic pads (and ceramic pads more expensive still) and can wear rotors abnormally (cast iron rotors, especially). Stainless steel rotors have become commonplace both as an OEM application and from the aftermarket for several reasons, durability against sintered pads being one of them.Semi-sintered Brake Pads
Bridging the gap between organic and sintered pads are semi-sintered pads. As the name suggests, semi-sintered pads offer a mix of organic and sintered materials in the pad design. Usually semi-sintered pads are developed from a sintered base and then add organic materials, but this isn’t a rule of thumb, as the opposite is also true.
By offering a mixture of metal and organic materials, semi-sintered pads deliver braking performance somewhere in between sintered and organic pads. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s more a matter of personal preference. Price-wise, semi-sintered pads follow the trend as being in the middle of the range.
What To Look For
When choosing a set of brake pads you’re effectively weighing three things: braking power, feel, and initial bite. Different pads use different recipes to come up with different balances of all three. This is true even within the same manufacturer. If all you’ve ever tried are the pads that came with the bike when you bought it, you may not know what your preferences are. In which case, trial and error may be your guide.
In any case, it’s best to read the manufacturer’s descriptions when choosing pads. They’ll have the best knowledge of the performance characteristics of the pad. Following that, get real world reviews from actual users. Then align those characteristics with your use case and preferences.
What brake pads are best for my motorcycle?
Isn’t that the topic of this entire article? Ultimately, the best brake pad for your motorcycle is entirely up to your personal preferences. Do you want a strong initial bite? Mega stopping power? Telepathic feel? Depending on your answers, the different brake pad manufacturers likely have a pad choice to suit your needs.
Are motorbike brake pads universal?
In short, no. The pad material might be the same between two pads, but the backing plate it’s bonded to may not fit your bike’s calipers.
How long will motorcycle brake pads last?
It depends. Are you a beast on the brakes because you’re racing? Or are you gentle and cruise at a mellow pace? Racers on powerful machines who abuse their brakes can go through several sets of brake pads a year, while we’ve heard of touring riders who hardly touch the brakes make a set last over 30,000 miles. As with most consumable items on your motorcycle, your mileage may vary.
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I've got a new bike on order - waiting for shipping the reach the States - and this was a timely article as the one point made is "Trial & Error". Don't know what the OEM pads are or if I can even get aftermarket pads yet for the new bike but will have to look at testing to see what suits my riding style.
My riding style has 'evolved' to where I am much easier on brakes than in years past, but early on I got used to sintered HH pads, and that's what I stick with for replacements.