Rod brakes are an ancient, finicky system. Tuned well, they can provide decades of maintenance-free service in dry weather. However, there are many ways by which their operation can be compromised and the seemingly innocent adjustment of handlebars, stem, and chain tension are a few things that demand extra attention with rod brake roadsters. Also, if you are like me and happen to live in an area without a significant following for vintage or utility cycling, it is likely that no shops in your vicinity will service rod brakes. Rod brake roadsters may seem intimidating to work on at first but I will attempt to dispel any self-doubt that may exist due to the smattering of poorly-given advice on the internet. If you have patience, some basic tools, and can turn a wrench, you can give your own rod brakes a full service.
This post will cover several different things you can do with rod brakes to make them perform better than new. The order in which these tasks are completed will vary with the condition of the mechanism. If your brakes need a full overhaul, don't hesitate to tear them apart and do all the steps at the same time. With rod brake roadsters, basic maintenance, even a simple wheel removal can take much longer than expected. Take this as motivation to get everything dialed in correctly the first time. First, let's go over the names of some parts just to clarify what I will be talking about:
Image from http://threespeedhub.com
Note: More recent models have "anti-vibration" plates that offset the front brake pads; they are supposed to point toward the rear of the bike, positioning the pads between the fork. They were backwards on my bike and I decided to leave them that way.
Before we can get to basic or routine adjustment of travel, you must make sure that the brake hardware is completely in alignment - height and toe - so that both pads touch the wheel at the same time. If the wheel is reasonably straight and one pad still touches before the other, it can result in uneven and excessive pad wear (pictured above) if left unaddressed.
Large items staying in storage for a long time get bumped or caught frequently. It is likely that a newly-purchased vintage bike, or even a newly-assembled road brake roadster will have bent brake rods. Any bends in the straight rods will compromise braking power as they will stretch straighter under tension, similar to how a kinked cable housing on a modern bike will make for spongy brakes, so it would be wise to get these kinks worked out before moving on.
If the brake pads point or "toe" inward or out when viewing the wheel from above, removing the stirrup and simply holding it in a vise or vise grip to twist the end will suffice. On the front, you will have to remove the fender and wheel to get it all the way off. Always cover the metal surfaces of the vise and pliers with masking tape to avoid scarring the finish on the brake. Make adjustments carefully and gradually as you would rather not overdo it and have to bend something back.
If one pad contacts before the other, the curvature of the stirrup will need to be adjusted to bring one side closer or further. Making one side point downward "straighter" will move the pad further from the wheel, while giving it a wider curvature will bring it closer. Unless the bike is involved in an accident or is bumped around often, these bending adjustments should be good for a long time. While the underside of the stirrup is accessible, it would also be a good idea to make sure the center nut pictured above is tight.
Adjustment of Travel
This is the equivalent of tightening the brake cable on a regular bike. For basic adjustment, loosen the adjustment nuts up front first. Rear brakes will have another nut below the bottom bracket. In extreme cases,the setting at the rear adjustment nut will need to be checked to ensure the pivots (that are bolted through the frame) are not reaching either end of their travel, or that the brake rods have not been pulled too far out of each other over time. It would also be a good idea to use some anti-seize on the adjustment nuts because nobody knows how much time or water your bike will face before the next check-up ...
Finding the correct positioning for the brakes may be a bit tricky. With the clips loose, squeeze the stirrup together to locate the pads laterally so they contact the wheel correctly, and push them closer to the wheel with one hand. With the other, move the clips to the position where they are just barely touching the stirrup. This is mainly to ensure that when the brake is pulled during usage, the stirrup move so far to the point where they come out of the clips. This should make the brake reasonably tight, but final adjustment should be done with the rods at the handlebars. This is to make it so there is no slop in the system between when you grab the brake lever and when you feel the lever pulling the rest of the linkage away from the clips.
You may find it handy to call for another set of hands to help hold the clips in place while you tighten them, or a wall could suffice if no additional hands are available.
Whenever the handlebars are raised or lowered, the adjustment nuts on the rods up front will need to be loosened first and tension will need to be adjusted accordingly. When the chain needs to be tensioned, it can be expected that that rear frame clips will need to move backward and rods will need to be adjusted as well.
I have come across other sources that say you can and/or should twist the brake levers away from the handlebar to allow for more travel when your hands clamp down. I personally have not found the need yet but with some older bicycles, you may find that the levers are too close to the bars just from decades of use. Be aware that any twisting or bending of the metal will fatigue it, making it so subsequent adjustments will occur sooner and sooner.
As I mentioned before, something that is very easy on most modern bikes may be a bit of a hassle with rod brake roadsters. Since these roadsters are also often equipped with hub brakes, full chain cases, racks, or any combination of things that interfere with the wheel and axle, removing a wheel, especially the rear, can be less convenient.
In the photo above, you will see that the rear frame clip has a C-shaped guide that the stirrup fits into. On the front fork clips, the guide hole is a full circle so you will not be able to squeeze the stirrup together to release it from the clamps. This may vary between different bicycle models. To remove the wheel, the brake pads will also have to be removed and then re-positioned once the wheel is back in its rightful position. Upon installation, make sure the pads are on the correct side so they do not slide out of the single-sided holders while braking.
Brake Pad Replacement
Video by ubrayj02
Unfortunately, I realized too late that I forgot to document the process when I replaced my pads. No worry, though, since this is the video that I used to learn how and the mechanic does a good job of explaining the procedure. As with other steel-wheeled bikes, the Kool Stop salmon brake pads are a good choice for maximum stopping power, especially in wet weather.
Tightening The Brake Lever Guides
First, I will say that lubrication of these guides, as well as the pivot points that go through the frame, is optional. Some people do it to make sure they don't squeak, but others skip the step in fear of dust or dirt becoming stuck to the grease. This will be up to your own judgement and whether your riding environment has more water or more dirt. Since I ride through a fair share of both, I usually just use some light oil or dry lube. If you're not sure, it probably doesn't matter.
Back to the guides: this is something that probably will never need to be done since the only situation in which this would be a necessary and effective solution is if it came from the factory loose, as mine did. The guides are threaded into nuts on the inside of the bar. Due to the circular cross section of the bar, the nuts don't loosen by themselves.
Disassembling the levers is pretty straightforward: undo the nut in the center while wiggling the lever out. The cam (flat pieces in the center), which has a square hole, will find its way off the square part of the lever and you will soon have full rotation of the lever. Toward the end, you may want to keep a hand on the spring before it flies across the room and behind the fridge.
If one or more of the brake lever guides is loose, do realize that the can only be tightened or loosened by 180 degree intervals in order to hold the lever. The nuts that they are threaded into are not brazed inside the bar. Warning: Do not unscrew them all the way or it will be next to impossible to re-position the nut! Although the guide has flat sides, using a wrench runs the risk of damaging the chrome. Instead, use something that will fit inside the hole such as a screwdriver or, say, the brake lever itself, and gain leverage from there. Do not worry about bending the lever. The nut would be stripped before that level of resistance is reached.
Tighten the guide in 180 degree increments (it shouldn't take more than a couple), re-inserting the rod each time to check for play. Be careful not to tighten too far but don't shy away from completing the operation. The guide may seem tight before reaching 180 degrees (as mine was, at about 100) but you can go a little further. Once it's tight enough and facing the right way, leave it. To re-install the lever, slide everything back in place. The torsion spring is surprisingly easy to work with here. Get everything on the lever and start the nut. Don't worry about fitting the cam on the square part of the lever until it reaches that point.
You can attach things to rod brakes, too!
And that's it for now ... I would suggest going for a ride to release all of the pent-up frustration from wrestling with your rod brakes. And to make sure they actually work.