Brake spring pliers, what are they?

Drum brake pliers are worth having in your toolbox if you work on drum brakes at times. Find out more about them in this article including how to use them and how to find the best.

Changing brake pads is quite easy but drum brakes can be quite intimidating especially at the sight of the springs you have to deal with. I have been doing brake jobs for a long time and I can tell you drum brakes are not a cup of tea. More so if you do not have brake spring pliers for removing and installing the heavy-duty brake springs.

But the struggle with drum brakes starts right from removing the drum. The drum can get really stuck due to rust and dirt. So you might have to whack it hard with a mallet to break it loose. Once you get it off, the real challenge begins. There are like 5 different springs inside a brake drum that hold different components in place. You must know where each spring goes and on top of that know how to remove and return each of them. Otherwise, your effort to do your drum brake might be all in vain.

In this article, I share all you need to know about brake spring pliers and why you need them. This includes how to use the different parts of the tool to work on different springs. But first, what are drum brakes?

What are drum brakes?

Drum brakes are a type of brake system that uses brake shoes to stop a wheel instead of brake pads. They are common on the rear wheels of older cars. Nowadays, most new cars use brake calipers even on rear wheels and only use the drum brake system as an emergency brake.

drum brake springs and other parts
parts of a drum brake system

A brake drum has two brake shoes – the leading and trailing shoe. The shoes are held in place using springs. The hold-down springs hold them onto the backing plate while the top springs are for keeping them in position relative to the drum.

How drum brakes work

When you step on the brake pedal, a hydraulic wheel cylinder in the drum brake assembly pushes the shoes outward against the drum. The lining on each shoe rubs against the side of the drum creating friction that stops the wheel from rotating. When you let go of the brake, the return springs pull the brake shoes off the drum and the wheel can rotate freely again.

Over time, brake shoe lining wears out and the whole brake shoe needs replacement. Sometimes it is the wheel cylinder or other drum brake hardware that needs replacement. Whichever the case, you cannot avoid dealing with brake springs whenever you are fixing the brake drum hardware. That is why it is nice to have a pair of drum brake spring pliers at hand.

What are drum brake spring pliers?

Brake spring pliers are special types of automotive pliers for removing and installing brake shoe springs and springs that hold drum brake hardware in place. Some people call them multi-tool brake pliers because of their multiple functionalities. Others call them dual-end pliers because both ends of each plier have a tool for working on a specific type of spring in the drum brake.

Typical brake spring pliers have an open hooked jaw for working on the bottom springs. The other jaw is bent so that you can use it as leverage when pulling the bottom spring to hook or unhook it from the brake shoe.

Double-end brake pliers have a socket head at the back of one of the handles for working on the brake shoe retainer springs and return springs. The tip of the other handle is notched so that you can use it to put back return springs onto the anchor stud.

How to use drum brake pliers

A good pair of drum brake pliers and a hammer are all you need to do a drum brake job. You do not need other pliers. Ideally, the brake pliers should have all the tools you need to remove or install the different types of springs that hold the drum brake hardware in place. That is why they are called multi tool pliers.

In this section, I show you how to use brake spring pliers to disassemble or assemble a drum brake system. But first, make sure you put on eye goggles to protect your eyes in case the springs come flying at you accidentally.

Brake springs are heavy duty and have a lot of tension in them. So, sometimes they may pop off and jump right onto your face. That is why you should have your goggles on before attempting to remove them.

Disassembling drum brakes

How to remove drum brake top springs

There are two top springs that hold brake shoes together. Their work is to return the brake shoes in position when you let go of the brake pedal.

Each of these heavy duty springs attaches to the brake shoe on one end and the other end goes around a common pivot stud. To remove them, you start by disconnecting the hooked end from the anchor stud using the special socket end on one of the handles.

Steps
  1. Place the socket head over the anchor stud. Position it in such a way that when you spin the pliers, the lip on the socket will push the end of the spring hook outward to dislodge the spring from the anchor pin.
  2. Depending on which spring is on top, spin the pliers clockwise or counter clockwise. If the primary spring is on top, spin the pliers counterclockwise. Otherwise spin it clockwise.
  3. Spin the socket the opposite direction to remove the second spring.
  4. Lastly, remove the self adjuster cable from the stud by hand. Unhook it from the self adjuster lever as well and put it aside.

Since brake spring release pliers open all the way, you can use one plier as a lever.

Removing the drum brake hold down springs

removing brake shoe retainer spring
Removing the brake shoe hold down spring with brake spring pliers (Source: Amazon)

As I mentioned, the brake shoe hold-down springs retain brake shoes onto the backing plate. They keep the shoes from coming off.

Each spring is held in place by a nail the comes through from behind the backing plate. The nail has a flat end that latches onto the slotted retainer plate on each spring. It helps keep the spring in tension to keep the brake shoe centered.

To remove the hold-down springs, use the socket end on one of the handles of the brake spring pliers. This is the same socket you used to remove the return springs above.

Steps
  1. Place the socket end of the brake plier handle over the top of the hold down spring.
  2. Press down onto the spring assembly and twist it to align the slot on the spring plate with the flat end of the pin. Remember to hold the anchor pin from the back to keep it from spinning.
  3. Once the slot on the plate and the pin align, stop compressing the spring spring so that it pops off from the pin to release the brake shoe.
  4. Repeat the same on the other brake shoe.
  5. Now remove the brake shoes by hand.

Most drum brake pliers with a socket end have it permanently welded. However, there are others with a free-spinning collar. For those ones, instead of using them to turn the retainer spring assembly, you turn the anchor pin to align its flat end with the plate slot. So, make sure you know the type of socket on your tool so that you don’t waste time trying to turn the wrong part.

How to remove the bottom drum brake spring

There are two ways to remove the bottom or lower spring on the drum brake.

The first approach requires you to remove the drum brake shoes first. So, you must start by removing the primary and secondary return springs, the self-adjuster cable, and the brake shoe hold-down springs. This then lets you remove the brake shoes. The good thing about this approach is that it eases the tension on the lower spring so you will not need to use any tool to remove it. Once the brake shoe is off, you simply remove the bottom spring by hand. The bad thing about this approach is that you have to disassemble almost all drum brake hardware.

The second approach involves removing the spring directly without following any sequence. However, because the spring is under tension, you the brake pliers to unhook one end from the adjuster lever. This is where the open hook end of the drum brake pliers comes in handy.

Steps
  1. Slip the hook end of the plier jaw under the spring near the adjuster plate.
  2. Bite the brake shoe lining with the other jaw. This jaw will act as leverage. You can use a piece of wood underneath to avoid damaging the lining.
  3. Squeeze the handles of the pliers together to extend the spring. This will pull the spring hook right out of the adjuster plate hole.
  4. Remove the other end of the spring by hand.

This second method is only good when you do not need to remove the brake shoes. Otherwise, I do not recommend it because it requires you to apply a lot of pressure on the handles to pull the spring out. Moreover, your pliers must be long enough to exert leverage on the spring.

Drum brake assembly

Putting the springs back on the drum brake is not hard. You only need to know which tool of the drum brake pliers to use and the sequence to follow. In this section, I share how to sequentially attach each spring to its position with brake spring pliers. You start with the hold-down springs, followed by the bottom springs, then the top springs.

How to attach brake shoe hold-down springs

When assembling the drum brake system, you start with the hold-down springs. These springs retain the brake shoes in the hub by pressing them against the backing plate. Here are the steps to follow but first make sure you have reinstalled the parking brake cable onto the trailing shoe.

Steps
  1. Insert the hold-down spring pin through the backing plate hole
  2. Align the trailing shoe so that the pin goes through the hole
  3. Place the hold-down spring and the retainer cap over the pin
  4. Use the socket end of the brake pliers to press down on the spring so that the tip of the pin goes through the slot of the sping retainer plate.
  5. Twist to the spring to lock it in place.
  6. Do the same on the primary brake shoe.

The next step is to install the bottom pin but first install the parking brake link with its spring on the right side. Also, set the wheel cylinder properly between the brake shoes at the top and the self-adjuster at the bottom. Now you are set to install the lower spring.

How to attach the lower spring

  1. Hook one end of the bottom spring onto the hole of one of the brake shoes
  2. Pull the other end of the spring with the hooked plier jaw. Open the pliers so that the bent jaw bites onto the shoe lining to act as leverage as you extend the spring.
  3. Pull the spring and hook it onto the shoe.

Now the last step before putting back the brake drum is to install the top springs and the self-adjuster cable to the spring pin.

How to attach brake shoe return springs

  1. Attach one end of the secondary return spring to the trailing brake shoe. Make sure you put the brake adjuster cable guide underneath.
  2. Attach the brake adjuster cable to spring pin. Make it goes around the cable guide you have just installed in the previous step.
  3. Now hook the other end of the secondary return spring onto the spring stud. Use the notched handle end of the brake plier to lever the spring hook and slide it onto the stud.
  4. Attach one end of the primary return spring leading brake shoe. Then use the same notched handle end of the pliers to pull the spring hook and slip it around the anchor stud.
  5. Now your drum brake is fully assembled. You can replace the brake drum.

Well, that is how to use brake spring multi-tool pliers to remove and install all the springs in the drum brake assembly. You do not need to carry additional pliers or hand tools. But your pliers need to have all the features for working on different springs. Otherwise, you will need an extra pair of pliers such as vise grips along with the brake pliers. But you don’t want that, do you?

So, what features should you look for when buying brake spring pliers?

Features of good drum brake spring pliers

To ensure that the brake spring pliers you add to your toolbox can handle drum brake jobs singly, you must make sure they have the following features.

Strong and sturdy

The first thing to look at when buying any pliers is how they are built. Pliers should be strong and sturdy to withstand pressure and abuse. The same applies to brake spring pliers. Good brake pliers should be solid enough to work on the heavy-duty brake springs without bending. At the very least, the pliers should be forged from steel.

Multiple tools

Brake pliers should have multiple integrated tools. These include the socket head, hooked jaw, notched shaft, and a bent jaw.

The socket end is good for removing the brake shoe hold-down springs. It should also have a lip so that you can use it to dislodge the return spring hooks from the anchor stud.

The open hooked jaw is for removing and installing the bottom pin. Lastly, the notched plier end is for putting back the brake shoe return springs onto the spring pin.

If your brake pliers do not have all four features, then you cannot rely on them to complete a drum brake job. You might need an additional hand tool.

So, having known the important features to look for, which are the best drum brake pliers in the market?

Best Drum Brake Spring Pliers

Lisle 11260 Double-ended brake spring pliers – Best for small cars

Lisle 11260 drum brake pliers

Key Features

  • Double-ended brake spring pliers
  • Socket size: 1/8″ diameter
  • Stainless stee
  • Made in USA

The Lisle 11260 drum brake pliers are the best double-ended pliers for removing and installing brake springs on small cars. These pliers have all the four features you would need on brake pliers. The socket end, notched end, and the hooked jaw.

The Lisle 11260 has only two main downsides. One, the prong is too wide for hooking onto the brake shoe return springs of some US vehicles. This makes the pliers ideal for import cars such as Toyota, Honda, Subaru among others.

Two, the socket head is only 1/8″ wide. Therefore, you cannot use the pliers to remove large hold-down springs or return springs hooked onto a wider anchor stud.

Nonetheless, Lisle brake pliers are solid steel end to end. Everything is fixed and this makes the tool sturdy enough to withstand abuse when working on the springs. The shafts are also thick enough to withstand warping under pressure and the joint is strong. This makes the brake pliers best for DIY and professional mechanics who deal in small cars.

OTC 7069A brake spring pliers – Best for trucks

OTC brake pliers for trucks

Key Features

  • Length: 26-1/4″
  • Material: Stainless steel
  • Not double-ended
  • Made in USA

If you are working on the brakes of a truck or bus, the OTC 7069A brake spring pliers are the best for dealing with those heavy-duty springs. The pliers are very strong and sturdy because they are meant for removing and installing brake shoe return springs on heavy-duty vehicles. They even measure longer than regular brake pliers so that they can provide a good mechanical advantage for working those tough air brakes.

Besides being heavy-duty, the most outstanding feature of the OTC 7069A brake pliers is their replaceable tip. So, when you break it, you don’t need to buy new pliers. You just replace the tip and continue using the pliers like they were new. This feature makes these pliers so versatile

Unfortunately, these brake pliers are not double-ended. Therefore, you can only use them to remove the brake shoe return springs. For the hold-down springs, you may need to use a pair of vise grips.

But despite this limitation, the OTC 7096A pliers are still the best heavy-duty brake spring pliers for trucks, trailers, buses, and big rigs. They make removing brake springs on large vehicles a breeze. You also don’t need to worry about breaking the hooked tip because you can always replace it.

So, if you work in a large shop environment, the OTC 7096A heavy-duty brake spring pliers should be your best bet. They will hold up nicely and you can use them on small and large trucks.

Hazet 796 brake spring pliers – Most durable

Hazet brake pliers

Key Features

  • Length: 8.5″
  • Material: chrome vanadium steel
  • Not double-ended
  • Made in Germany

If you want a touch of German quality on your brake pliers, you can consider the Hazet 796 brake spring pliers. They are not dual-end pliers. So you cannot use them to remove the brake shoe retainer springs or install the return springs. But they are excellent for removing stubborn return springs from the anchor stud on any car.

The Hazet brake spring pliers are built to the German quality. They are forged from chrome vanadium steel and are nicely machined. The hook on the jaw is sturdy and nicely tapered to grasp springs without a problem. The other jaw is nicely bent to provide the leverage you need when stretching out brake shoe springs.

Wrap up

Overall, brake spring pliers make it easy to remove and install drum brake springs. They also save you from bruising your hands and knuckles while trying to remove the springs with vise grips and other pliers. So, if you do brake jobs regularly or once in a while, these are pliers you want to have in your toolbox. They are not even expensive. So you will not feel like you lost your money even if you don’t use them often. But they will make your brake job easy when you use them.

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