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How To: Veteran Motorcycle Brake Blocks

October 18, 2010

The rear brakes on the Premier keep me thinking while I ride the bike.  Interesting thoughts like “Will they stop me quickly enough this time?” or “Will they fade away to nothing?”  The brake material had worn so much that the block could jam itself into the dummy brake rim, which was an all-or-nothing proposition: the brakes would grab well, but they would lock.


The VMCC sells new brake material in slabs, so I ordered some.  Well, I tried to order some.  After they refunded my British pounds via PayPal, they told me that they do not have enough insurance to sell the brake material in the USA, or in Canada.  Same thing for V belt connector clips.  I’m not sure if the trouble is the perception that Americans sue people a lot, or maybe that Brits tend worry a lot about the possibility of being sued…

A friend in the UK bought the material and mailed it to me pronto.  It was very straightforward to machine it to fit the brake shoe.  It can be cut with wood working tools like hand saws or routers, as well as metal working tools like mills or files.  The saw roughed it out, then a bit of milling to narrow it, then two holes to drill and some shaping with rasps and files finished it.

On the left is the old brake, made from Fibrax material.  The new material is on the right.

IMG_4574 IMG_4573 IMG_4575 IMG_4576


How are the brakes now?   Very slightly better…   Which is to say, they are terrible, but not as terrible as they used to be.   Some guys make brake blocks from wood, I might try that before springtime.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Abbott permalink
    October 18, 2010 2:56 pm

    Pete: Does the dummy rim ever wear down? Also, if you try wood, would a harder wood (like ebony) be better? What’s the dummy rim made of?

    I enjoy your site a lot and am always curious about how things were done in the past and why.

    Jim A. Tucson, AZ Perfect weather for driving. Big bike bash coming this Sunday. Have to skip church.

    • Pete Young permalink*
      October 18, 2010 7:36 pm

      The dummy rims are rolled steel. They last for a very long time if they do not get rusty. I’m not sure what wood is the best, but it needs to grip well, not grab, and not burn. I’ll check into it.

      • Jim Abbott permalink
        October 19, 2010 9:39 am

        Pete: I didn’t consider catching fire. Need to find an asbestos tree. J.

  2. Jim Abbott permalink
    October 18, 2010 2:56 pm

    I meant perfect for riding!

  3. October 18, 2010 6:16 pm

    I think the VMCC itself is fearful of being sued. As you discovered – It’s nice t0 have friends. 🙂
    On Brakes. “Fear is good – it keeps you alive”.

  4. Paul Venne permalink
    October 18, 2010 7:25 pm

    I drove my 1956 Plymouth for a year once on the hand brake. It pays to look ahead. Thanks, Paul

  5. Anton B permalink
    October 19, 2010 11:06 pm

    Ask someone who works on cable cars, they use wood on steel for brakes. I assume you have ridden one and smelled the burning wood smell. Kinda nice.
    I believe they use fir.

  6. Charles Boyd permalink
    November 4, 2010 11:02 pm

    You may want to look into a material called Micarta. It comes in different grades, and I was told it was originally developed to be used in the launch blocks of aircraft carriers.I’ve used it for knife handles, and it is available on knife building websites. The stuff is realy hard and durable, may work well for your application.


  7. April 2, 2011 5:00 pm

    Dear Pete Wooden brake blocks are OK in a pinch. Medium hard wood is best as it is unlikely to burst into flames and will last many hundreds of k’s. If you have burning problems you might just be riding too fast. We are blessed here in Oz with country roads that are less crowded. The best block material can be sourced through Kevin Hellowell of Yorkshire UK. His email is Hold onto your hat at the price as the material comes from the Scandinavian Arabian oil field ( Sweden ) but the price IS cheaper than a coffin. Kevin’s specialty is Sturmey-Archer and Armstrong geared hubs.
    Have a look at a rally for veterans from Perth to Sydney ( 4,000+ kilometres ) in April 2012. Some of us are going

  8. April 2, 2011 5:07 pm

    Dear Pete Add on I have a 1911 or 12 Model 1 twin cylinder 580 cc with the strange bottom end which has the pistons rising together as in a vertical twin. Problem is I have the wrong frame, forks, magneto etc. Is there a spare frame and or forks out there somewhere? My motor was used in speedway but heaven knows why.

  9. Anonymous permalink
    October 22, 2014 5:18 am

    i have just come across this site as i was looking for information on brake block setting up for my S26 BSA. If it helps the traction engin guys that i know use poplar wood for brake blocks as it risists burning

    Regards MikeR

  10. Blueskinner permalink
    March 12, 2015 2:02 pm

    Isn’t Google wonderful. I have just discovered this information and would like to hear If any one has seen the article on the new wooden brakes they are fitting to the French high speed trains, In the You tube report they say the process is patented but it show them boiling the wood in peanut oil for 24 hours and then then in salt water for good measure? Radco in the bible of M/c restoration says use either poplar or beech I’m going to have a shot with Curly beech. It grows local is tough as nails machines great and with a convoluted grain I’m hoping it should not fly apart. Not sure about giving it the french treatment, A couple of days in the crock pot on slow simmer might do the trick.

    • March 12, 2015 2:14 pm

      I’ve wanted to try beech, but haven’t done it yet. Let us know how well it works!

      • Blueskinner permalink
        March 12, 2015 3:47 pm

        I’m still in the restoration of this machine and the blocks are next on my schedule to complete. There are so many configurations with braking designs some, a lot more advanced than others. Mine are a v blocks forced into v brake rims so tricky to fabricate and marry up to get a good surface fit.

      • March 12, 2015 3:51 pm

        Make sure that you start with a big blank before whittling it to the curve shape, then the V. I made one blank too small and had to scrap the material.


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