Repair Tips & FAQ
Home Books & Lessons Repair Tips & FAQ New Watches Tools and  Parts Clocks Vintage Wrist Watches Vintage Pocket Watches

 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

 

1. How can I learn to repair watches? .

2. Why do you call someone who repairs watches a watchmaker? They just fix'em, not make'em.

3. What tools and supplies do I need in watch repair?

4. What kind of books and repair manuals will I need for watch repair?

5. Why is watch repair so expensive, or how much will it cost to fix my watch?

6. Give me some tips on removing a pocket watch movement from its case.

7. How is a watch dial removed?  

8. How is a watch crystal replaced?

9. How old is my watch?

10. Is my watch just overwound???


Note:  All tips are offered as suggestions only.  You are advised to use a competent watch restorer to avoid errors and costly mistakes.  However, if you are learning watch repair, the following tips might prove helpful. 

1. How can I learn to repair watches?


There are many ways to learn watch and /or clock repair. You may want to repair watches as a profession, to make a little extra money, or to enjoy repairing as a hobbyist. Many people enjoy tinkering with timepieces and thoroughly enjoy seeing an old mechanism come to life after years of neglect and/or abuse. I certainly do! Others are collectors and can't find anyone else to repair their timepieces to their satisfaction. Many very good watchmakers started out as hobbyists, and some now are full time in the business. One of the best ways to learn to repair timepieces is to work under a master as an apprentice. However, this is often not possible. Also, some craftsmen prefer to work only on watches, others only on clocks. The skills required are a little different. Watch repair does require good eyesight, good hand and eye coordination, and a lot of patience. Just like not everyone can be a good artist, or a good musician, not everyone can learn watch repair.  Watch repair is NOT simple, it requires dedication, skill, and a lot of time to learn.  In addition, a good collection of tools and supplies is not cheap either!!

For starters, I suggest you join the AWI (American Clockmakers Watchmakers Institute - as it is now called).  The AWI has an excellent publication that comes out once a month. Also, the AWI sponsors training that may come to a city near you. In addition, join a chapter of the NAWCC, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors - and go to some of their local and regional meetings - if you are in Eastern Virginia, join us at the Old Dominion Chapter 34 meetings in Williamsburg .  In addition, the NAWCC offers courses in watch repair at their headquarters in Pennsylvania.  If you want to get an idea of a recent workshop - try this link which will give you the transcript of one of my workshops on the Watch Balance Wheel.  You will meet a lot of knowledgeable people, watchmakers, machinists, craftsmen, hobbyists, engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, and businessmen, just to name a few.  Also, the NAWCC bulletin, which comes out every other month, is very informative with tips and techniques to use in repairing timepieces.  To help beginners learn the basics and get started, I decided to write a repair manual unlike any other found on the market today.  To keep costs low for you, I have put the lesson on a computer CD.  You can purchase Lesson 1 from my web site for only $29.00. 

Cd-lesson1.jpg (46559 bytes) For more information, follow this link.  If you find Lesson 1 useful, then you may want to buy additional lessons such as lesson 2, lesson2_jpg.jpg (31848 bytes)which goes into detail on the 18 size American pocket watch.  I recently updated my lesson on the lathe.  It is filled with information that will help you make watchmaker tools and watch parts.  les7pic.jpg (33606 bytes)  Also, I have written a lesson about the watchmaker's staking set and its many uses, a lesson on how to make your wrist or pocket watch case look the best it can, a lesson on aircraft clocks, and many more are on the way.

2. Why do you call someone who repairs watches a watchmaker? They just fix'em, not make'em.


Years ago - in the 1700's up to the turn of the last century, watches were often made and repaired by very small shops. The "watchmakers" both made and repaired watches. Also, watch parts were not interchangeable. Essentially, all parts required to fix a broken watch had to be hand turned or at least hand fitted to fix a particular watch. Anyway, the name "watchmaker stuck," and today people who only repair watches are called watchmakers.

3. What tools and supplies do you need  in watch repair?
General - The basic tools are a good lamp, a good work area (workbench), magnification (loupes), tweezers, screwdrivers, cleaning solvents, oil, pegwood (wood toothpicks), a knife, and various adhesives, stones for sharpening your screwdrivers and tweezers, measuring tools, and emory cloth. You can also add to the list hand pullers, broaches, punches (a staking set), various pliers, nippers, a demagnetizer, watch case opening and closing tools, and files. If you get more serious you may find you need a truing caliper, a jeweling tool, a timing machine, a grinder, a polisher, an ultrasonic cleaning machine, and possibly a lathe. The list can go on and on as there are hundreds of specialized tools that were made to help in watch repair.  Good tweezers and screwdrivers are the starting tools.  

Tweezers:  I suggest that you start with a style 2 or 3 tweezer.  The Swiss made nonmagnetic ones are best as they will not rust or drive you crazy with steel parts clinging to them.  (You may want to get a demagnetizer to assist with this problem.) Keep your tweezers sharp and with the two inside planes touching parallel at the tip.  Make sure that the two inside planes are truly parallel.  If they are not parallel and are sloping outward, your parts may shoot out of the tweezers if you apply a little too much pressure.  To keep your tweezer points sharp and parallel, use a fine stone. 

Screwdrivers:  The Swiss screwdriver color-coded set with revolving tops (ball bearings in some) in the revolving stand is the best set.  If you do not want to invest the $100+, you might try the French made drivers, or the ones made in India or Pakistan.  However, the latter two vary greatly in quality.  Some are pretty good, some are poor.

Cleaning solutions:  Use a good commercial solution, I prefer waterless.  Also, be careful not to breathe too much of any of the solvents as most are known carcinogens, especially benzene, trichloroethane, and trichloroethylene.  Pegwood sticks are very useful to peg out the jewel holes of the old pocket watches which can be really "gunky."  Either an old "L&R" or similar cleaning machine or a newer version ultrasonic machine will work as long as you examine the parts after cleaning and then hand clean dirty parts if necessary. 

Oils:  The subject of oils is very complex.  A good oil is expensive just like a fine perfume.  Elgin made one of the first true breakthroughs in the synthetic watch oil category.  It is no longer available to my knowledge.  However, Moebius, a Swiss company, makes many fine oils, both synthetic and natural.  The type of oil required depends on the size of the watch and the application.   A good general purpose oil for wrist and pocket watches is the Moebius 9010 for the balance pivots and escape wheel and 9020 oil for the larger gear train.  You will need to get a grease for the winding gears and for the mainspring, such as Moebius 8200.



4. What kind of books and repair manuals will I need for watch repair?  My watch repair CD's are an inexpensive way to get started.  IN addition, I have copied many of the old repair parts lists and catalogs that were put out by the American watch companies many years ago.  Also, I have made copies of technical repair sheets that were supplied to watchmakers by Hamilton and other companies.  I have also picked out a number of good used books.  You can find all of these in Watchdoc's Bookstore. You will need the basic books on watch repair such as Henry Fried's The Watchmaker's Manual. You will need to be able to identify the timepieces so that you may obtain replacement parts. For American pocket watches, I suggest Swigart, If you want to repair mechanical wrist watches, a must is the Bestfit Encyclopedia's two volume set or QuickFit, etc.   The reprinted Bestfit Encyclopedia is no longer for sale, but you may be able to find it used.  

Start a small library of books on "how to repair clocks and watches."  Add a book and your knowledge will grow as your library grows.    Also, pick up a copy of Cooksey Shugart's book which is loaded with information.  Even the old 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog offered repair tools.  Roebuck was a watchmaker, I doubt many of you knew that! I know of many hobbyists that learned watch and clock repair from reading and doing. You can pick up watches on the web (check my tools and parts list) or at flea markets that need repair.  Lots of them.  Start with a 16 size American pocket watch such as an Elgin or Waltham. They are common, and parts are available. They are also well made and are not as difficult as the older 18 size full-plate pocket watch movements. 

5. Why is watch repair so expensive?
If you consider the skill required to fix a fine timepiece, the price is not expensive at all. To learn to repair watches is a lifelong learning experience - you never learn it all. There are thousands of different models out there with many different mechanisms. A watchmaker must know how to get the movement from the case, how to avoid damaging very delicate parts, and how to fix the watch. He is expected to be able to fix antique pieces from the 1700's to modern quartz watches. There is no other profession that I can readily think of that requires so much diversified skill!! In addition, a watchmaker must be patient and study the mechanism carefully before acting. Often, other so-called repairmen have treated the movement roughly - forcing parts that are too large into place causing much damage. In addition, to get a watch to run is one thing; to get it to keep good time is another! It may take hours of adjustment to get a watch to keep good time in the various positions.  Then consider that in 1970 there were over 30,000 watchmakers in this country, now there are only about 5,000! 

How much will it cost to fix my vintage watch?  That is a simple question, but it does not have a simple answer.  First of all, find a good watchmaker to fix it!  Don't take it to the nearest jewelry store and expect to get it fixed.  Most of the watches you buy today are quartz and are not meant to be fixed at all.  At best, the movement of a quartz watch can be replaced, not worked on.  Also, most watchmakers today do not even work at a jewelry store.  You can check the American Watchmaker Clockmaker Institute  AWCI web site to find a watchmaker near you.  However, it is reasonably safe to mail your watch to a good watchmaker.  Just wrap the watch carefully, insure or register it, and send it off.  I mail hundreds of watches a year and have not lost a single watch.  One watch was tampered with by a postal employee, but he was caught!!  Well, back to the price of what it will cost to fix your vintage watch, sorry that I got distracted!!  Consider that a watchmaker is highly skilled.  Thus, he typically would like to make at least $50 an hour for his work, plus he must pay overhead.  To properly clean a watch - this is CLEAN ONLY - takes several hours.  To do it right, the watch must be taken apart, run through an automatic cleaning machine, inspected for damage and inspected to make sure it is REALLY clean, and then reassembled, HAND oiled, and timed out.  To do this takes me about 4 hours minimum.  So, you can expect to pay around $200 for a PROPER clean, oil, adjust.  (If you are quoted $25 to "clean" your watch, then most likely the watch is only being cleaned whole without taking it apart, or it is just being oiled with all that dirt in place.  Then the oiled dirt will grind your gear pivots and plates and the watch will be trashed if you run it long enough.) Often that old watch you have has problems.  It was put in the drawer because something broke, or because it stopped three times a day, or kept terrible time.  Now, getting parts for old watches is a chore.  One must either make them if they can't be found, or find someone out there who has the parts.  This means generally calling a lot of other watchmakers to see if they have a part or have a movement with the part in it.  Broken balance staffs are a common problem that requires a lot of skill.  The balance staff is the arbor or axis that runs through the balance wheel.  If an old watch is dropped, it often breaks as the pivots are small and hardened to cut down on friction.  Or, the balance pivots may become bent.  Even if they do not break, the jewels that support the balance pivots may break and then cut into the balance pivots and gradually stop the watch.  Approximately 50 % of the time,  the jewels that the balance pivots go through break when the watch is dropped.  To replace a balance staff can easily take 1 to 3 hours!  Then the mainspring may be set or rusty.  "Set" means the mainspring has lost its power and the watch will not run very long or will not keep time.  RUST is enemy number one of watches.  So, don't get your watch near water, even if it is so-called water resistant!!

  6. Give me some tips on removing a pocket watch movement from its case.

Removing a pocket watch from an American case is usually not too difficult.  If you see hinges on the front and back, then the front and back of the case can be gently pried open.  If there are no hinges, the case may possibly be a snap back and bezel, which is also pried open with a small knife or case tool.  (Look for a lip, or for a small slot to access the knife.)  However, before you start prying, make sure you do not have a screw on back and bezel case.  (The bezel is the front part of the case that holds the crystal in place).  So, try to unscrew before prying, which will warp and distort any threads making it very difficult to open or close the case.  Some old cases have not been opened in years, so the threads may be full of dirt and grime.  In that case, use a little penetrating oil (such as Liquid Wrench) to loosen up the grime.  You may want to use a piece of thin rubber to give you more friction.  If that fails, try using double sticky tape. If after removing the back or the bezel, the threads look bad, you can use a very small file to carefully restore them.   Once the back and bezel is removed, there are typically two case screws that hold the movement in place.  Pull out the stem if it is pendant set.  If it is not pendant set, the stem may have to be removed.  If so, there is usually a small screw in the pendant.  The movement can then be gently pushed out of the front of the case.  Foreign cases are often different than the American cases, and many foreign movements have case screws that are embedded in the movement and are difficult to see.  So, if in doubt, leave it to an expert.  Be especially careful not to damage the dial, hands, or the balance wheel!  Those components are often nearly impossible to replace with originals.

7. How is a dial removed from a watch?  

Often a dial, either on a wrist or pocket watch just does not look good, so you may decide to replace or refinish it (if it is metal).  If your watch dial is a rare enamel pocket watch dial, you had better leave it to your favorite watchmaker to do this.  Even watchmakers with years of experience sometimes break fragile enamel dials!  However, if you are trying to learn watch repair and have a common 16 size Elgin 7 jewel pocket watch with a big chipped enamel dial, and you have a much better dial available, you certainly would want  to replace it.  You will have to remove the hands to take off the dial.  (If you have a pocket watch timer, you can damage the dial removing the hands, so leave timers to experts.) I like to use a "presto" watch hand remover.  To keep the hands from flying out of the puller, and to protect the dial, I first cover the hour and minute hands with a small piece of plastic wrap.  Then I use the presto puller to pull the hands.  The hands will be trapped in the plastic wrap.  (If the hands are difficult to remove and appear to be rusty, try a little oil to loosen them.)  Then, after removing the hands and movement from the case, carefully examine the sides of the movement.  Some pocket watch movements have a metal ring that is friction fit around it to keep out dust.  This must be taken off to expose the dial screws.  Most American dials have 3 "feet" that fit into holes in the movement.  The screws around the side of the movement "bite" into the dial feet and hold the dial in place.  If you start prying a dial without first loosening the screws (or removing them), then you will crack the dial at best, and will likely end up with a big chuck of enamel missing.   It is often better to remove the dial screws as they will sometimes fall out after you loosen them.  Since they are small, they are hard to find.  After the screws are removed, gently pry the dial with a screwdriver or bench knife going around and around the dial to evenly loosed it. 

8. How is a watch crystal replaced?  First, let us consider wrist watches and pocket watches separately.  1- Wrist watches.  Wrist watch crystals come in several materials: primarily they are plastic, glass, and synthetic sapphire.  The sapphire crystals are very hard, difficult to produce, and expensive.  They are used in the more expensive watches such as Rolex, Breitling, etc.  Wrist watch crystals may be round or fancy shaped (anything besides round).  The round crystals may have a high or low profile.  Most quartz watches have a mineral glass crystal with a plastic gasket ring.  The plastic crystals may or may not have an inner ring of metal (tension ring) to support them.  Crystals for diver's watch crystals, which must be very strong often have the tension ring.  There are special crystal lifts made to compress the round high dome plastic crystals to remove and insert them.  Replacing a fancy (non-round crystal) on a vintage watch may take a lot of time.  Genuine crystals made by the manufacturer are often not available.  Thus, the glass or plastic crystal is a generic replacement, which may not fit perfectly.  Sometimes it is too large and must be filed or ground down, and then the edges must be repolished.  These days, most of the elite Swiss watch manufacturers will not supply genuine case parts such as crystals to watchmakers.  They want you to send your watch back "to the factory repair facility" for all repair work.  That is why I specialize in vintage and antique watches, I don't want the headache of trying to get parts from  the modern watch manufacturers.  2- pocket watch xtals. Pocket watch crystals are almost always round with a few exceptions.  The crystals were originally glass in the old watches.  The oldest crystals made in the 1600's through the early 1800's were hand blown, and are sometimes called "bull's eye" crystals due to the flat center portion where the blowpipe's mark is ground out.   More modern pocket watch glass crystals can be heavy or thin, nearly flat or domed.  Glass crystals must fit almost perfectly, which means that they have to be measured very precisely to replace them.  If an exact fit is not possible, a near-fit can be held in place with an adhesive such as epoxy or a resin that sets under ultraviolet light.  The diameters of more modern glass crystals; i.e, ones made in the last 50 or 60 years are often measured in millimeters.   Hunting case crystals are difficult to fit as they are thin, and the cover must not hit the crystal and the hands must clear from below.  Thus, both the diameter, the height, and the thickness of the crystal must be matched.  One big problem is that quite often the "popular size" glass crystals have all been used up, especially for the 16 size American watches.  Although plastic crystals generally work well in pocket watches, some collectors want the glass crystal when possible.  There are special tools to compress the plastic crystals in order to insert them into the case.  The older glass crystal diameters were measured in lignes.  This is a French system of measurement that is commonly used by watchmakers and is equal to 2.25583 mm.
How old is my watch? First, you need to determine whether your watch is American or foreign made. If your watch is an American pocket watch with a serial number, then in may be possible to date your watch within a few years by referring to the chart below. The serial number is found on the movement, NOT on the case. The case is often made by a casemaker and not by the maker of the movement.

Table I. Serial numbers versus approximate year of manufacture for American Watches

  Waltham

Elgin

Hamilton Illinois

Seth Thomas

South Bend

Hampden
1860 20,000            
1870 500,000 50,000   1,000      
1880 1.5 mill ! 750,000   300,000     150,000
1890 5 mill 4 mill   1 mill 235,000   610,000
1900 10 mill 9 mill 104,000 1.4 mill 1.1 mill 380,000 1.4 mill
1910 18 mill 15 mill 1 mill 2.2 mill 2.7 mill 600,000 2.6 mill
1920 23.5 mill 23 mill 1.8 mill 3.6 mill   1 mill 3.9 mill
1930 27 mill 33 mill 2.4 mill 5.3 mill*      
1940 30.5 mill 39 mill 3.6 mill 5.5 mill      
1950 33 mill 48 mill letter+num        
  ! mill = millions        * Illinois was sold to Hamilton around 1929.  Hamilton kept the Illinois name and produced some very nice watches after 1930 such as the 60-hr Bunn Special.

 

10. Is my watch just overwound???  First, newer ever say your watch is just overwound.  Unless you take a pair of pliars and force the watch to wind after it is fully wound and break the winding gears or the spring - then your watch is NOT overwound!!!  If someone wants to sell you a watch and tells you that "It is just overwound!" - then either 1. - He doesn't know what he is talking about, or 2 - he is being dishonest and is handing you a line (hook, line, and sinker) to make you think the watch has little wrong with it.  Watches stop for a reason.  If you find a watch has stopped, the first thing you do is try to wind it.  That usually works.  However, suppose you drop your watch and break the staff.  Then your watch will stop.  You can then wind it back up, but it will not start running. It does not start because the staff is broke, not because it is overwound. You should have your watch serviced every couple of years if you want to carry it and use it.  You certainly don't wait for your car to stop before you change the oil, DO YOU???? 

  Copyright 2001-2011 by Watchdoc - all rights reserved

February 11, 2011