They’re on so many old and new bikes. Called side-pull or single-pull brakes, they need the correct type of attention to keep them working correctly. This style of bike brake is not as effective as modern ones, so having them work their best is important. I recently reworked the ones on my 50 year-old Schwinn Continental, and I thought I would share some of the highlights.
When you remove and disassemble the brake unit, make notes to help you remember how all the pieces go together. I skipped this step, as I have done this many times before, but you might want to make some drawings and notes. Clean and inspect each piece, and keep them all together to prevent problems. Make sure all the pieces were installed on the brake and shop for replacements if necessary. I made sure to polish them for a good look, but that is not necessary.
The one issue my brakes had was a bent arm from someone pulling too hard on the brake lever. These are aluminum arms that are very stout, but reforming them to the correct shape is not hard. On a wood block, I used a brass drift and hammer to pound them straight. Take your time, don’t overdo it, and check your progress as you go. The result left no trace of the fact that it was ever bent.
At this time, it is not a bad idea to remove the brake levers and cables for a inspection and clean-up too. A new set of cables and housings can make a big difference in the smoothness and strength of your brakes. Make sure the housings are the correct length, and the end cuts come out smooth and straight. The correct cutting tool is very helpful for this step. The in-line ferrules and adjustors need to be correctly placed too.
While cutting my housings, I went an extra step to get a clean, straight cut. After the initial snip with the cutters, I used my bench grinder to clean and straighten the cuts. I used compressed air applied to the far end to keep metal shavings from entering the housing. And then, I carefully de-burred the inside of the cut where the inner cable rides to make sure there was no roughness there.
Add a small amount of grease to the cable where in rides in the housing, to allow it to slide freely. Make sure the brake levers aren’t worn, lube if necessary, and reinstall the levers and cables. We will tighten, adjust, and trim the length of the cables as one of the last steps.
On to the brakes themselves. One of the main things here is to make sure the brake arms move freely and are not too loose. As you reassemble the brake arms to the main pivot shaft, add a small amount of grease. Between, and on each side of the arms, there should be a shim washer. Grease these too. The spreader spring needs to be correctly placed before the arms go on to the pivot shaft. A tad of grease here and on the ends of the springs will cut down on brake squeal. Install the two securing (adjusting) nuts and hand tighten them for now.
Install the brake on the bike, taking note that things are looking right. Hand tighten the main securing nut and set the cable into the brake guides. Now its time to deal with the brake pads. If yours are in good shape, then bolt them on. Most likely a new set will be called for. You have some options.
I like the red colored pads. These have an improved compound that works better and will last longer. My other old Schwinns have these and I think they work the best. I was only able to find the black OEM style for this project. Down the road, I might up-grade them, but for now, these are working fine. They are marked L & R and have a bevel to allow them to match the contour of the rim. Note—the ones in the photo with the parts laid out were not the ones I used. They had no bevel and are designed for a different type of rim.
Install the pads on the correct side with the bevel matching the rim. Hand tighten these and we will move onto the adjustment phase. With the adjustments, tighten each item a little at time. We will fully secure all the nuts and bolts when everything is in line.
Start with lining up the pads to the rim. They should contact the rim along the middle and be parallel to the rim. Make sure the pads won’t touch the tire. Then adjust the cable to bring the pads close to the rim. The nut that holds the brake to the bike should be tightened some. Next we want to start getting the nuts that hold the arms to the pivot shaft to the correct adjustment. Remember to just tighten each a little until we are ready to finish up. Kind of like a circle, check each setting and tighten a little more.
There are two important things that have to be right, other than the pad contact to the rim. These are on the main pivot shaft. The dual nuts that hold the arms have to be just tight enough to allow free movement, without being loose enough to let them flop around. These two nuts are different sizes and you might need a very thin wrench to hold the inner one while securing the outer cap nut. As you tighten these jam nuts, the adjustment will change, take your time and redo it as needed.
The nut that holds the brake to the bike adjusts the equal distance each pad has to the rim. By holding the cap nut on the other end of that shaft, you can find the right spot as you secure it. Once again, rework and reset as needed.
Another thing to set is the toe-in of the brake pads. To prevent brake squeal, there should be about a millimeter or two gap in the rear of the pad (to the rim) when the front part just touches (the rim). This is set by reforming (bending) the end on the brake arm with a crescent wrench. Work gently and slowly to find the right setting.
As all the adjustments come together, each fastener will get closer to fully tightened. Don’t over-tighten, but use your gut feeling to make sure they are secure. You will need to carefully hold the pads to keep them from moving as the nut is tightened The last setting is the cable length. Secure the cable holder so the pads don’t touch the rim when the brakes are not applied. When you are happy with that setting, trim the cable end and install a cap by crimping it with long-nosed pliers.
Test ride your bike and make sure all is working well. Make more fine settings if you need. As you ride, the cable will stretch and the pads will bed in. That is normal and you now are capable of keeping everything in the perfect alignment.
I hope this made sense and you were able to follow along to get your brakes in top shape. If you were here in person, I could explain it all much better. It feels good to do your own maintenance and know that you and your bike are as one. Happy braking, Turbo.
“The cyclist has acquired a new habit, an automatic unconscious habit, solely because he wanted to and kept trying until it was added into him.”—George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah.