The brakes feel a little soft, or make a gentle thumping noise when you step on them. Here’s an easy way to check them out.
Level the Car
Park the car on level ground and open the hood. The level ground part is very important, because you won’t really be able to tell how much fluid is in the reservoir if the car’s on a driveway.
Identify the Brake Fluid Reservoir
Open the hood. If that’s new to you, there’s a good description on this page: How to Check Your Oil.
Find the brake fluid reservoir. It’s a squat black jar on the driver’s side of the engine compartment, towards the back. Take off the cap.
Check the Brake Fluid Level
Check the level. There are two lines embossed on the side of the reservoir – usually labeled MIN and MAX. The brake fluid should be right next to the MAX line. You might need a flashlight to check it.
Add Brake Fluid
Add fluid to the reservoir. Don’t be sloppy – you seriously don’t want to get this stuff on your paint – and add it slowly to the reservoir. Try no to over-fill it. The world won’t end or anything, but that excess fluid will eventually squirt out into the environment.
Replace the reservoir cap. Make sure it clicks firmly into place. Close the hood. You’re all done.
About Your Brakes
If you added fluid, the brakes will feel harder right away. You might hear the clunking noise once or twice more, but it should go away.
If you didn’t have to add fluid, or if the symptoms didn’t immediately go away, you need to visit a mechanic.
Your brake system works like this:
You step on the pedal. The pedal activates a pump that mechanically pushes the brake fluid in the reservoir through metal tubes out to the wheels. At the wheels, the fluid pushes on calipers against rotors (disc brakes) or shoes against drums (drum brakes). The calipers and shoes both use asbestos pads to absorb friction and heat and slow your car down.
If your mechanic tells you right out of the box that you need a new master cylinder or new calipers, thank him for his time and find another mechanic. These are the most expensive components in the system, but are not the most prone to failure. Most often you’ll only need new brake pads or shoes.
Please Note: Do not use this procedure if you are not certain that you can complete it safely, or if it does not seem accurate. Skippity Whistles provides this information as advice, and cannot accept any liability from your usage of it.