Most watch repair today is limited to replacing batteries and sizing bands. Most watches are so cheap, it makes little sense to dismantle them to replace a broken crystal or try and fix anything. We very quickly spend more time than most watches are worth. I started doing battery replacements because it was ridiculous to pay someone $10 to replace a 50-cent battery. The back covers are nearly always just snapped-on. A few are threaded. Even fewer attach with teensy tiny screws. Prying the back OFF is generally easier than snapping them back ON. There are special tools that make removing and re-installing the back much easier. Before trying to force the cover back on, DO look for a small groove that should align with the button used to set the time. Forcing things will only bend the stem, or break the part it is attached to.
Some watches are valuable, and it is certainly worth replacing a cracked crystal or even the entire "motor" that runs an expensive watch. The intricate assembly inside that causes the hands to move is correctly called a "movement", even when there does not appear to be anything moving. In antique watches and clocks, the movement can be disassembled, cleaned, lubricated, and kept running for decades. Over the years movements have become more and more maintenance free. The movement in most modern clocks and watches is a sealed plastic unit that just gets replaced when a new battery will not get it going again. Some very expensive watches are driven by a $25 quartz movement. A jewelery store will likely charge upwards of $80 to replace a movement. Maybe it's guilt that prompts some of them to replace the crystal "free of charge" while they have the watch apart.
Sizing watch bands is usually easy. Look at the back of any metal band and most will have a few links that look different. It usually isn't too hard to figure out the trick to unlock the removable links. If 3 or 4 links need to come out, work on one of the middle ones until you figure out how they work. Do your training on a link that will be tossed in the trash.
I inherited this antique pocket watch. It's a 1902 Waltham. The watch came to me wound to the last click and did not run. Many years ago, I remember my Dad taking it to be repaired. He brought it home with a note saying it would cost more than it was worth to fix it. That was more than 20 years ago. When the watch was given to me, I put it away in a desk drawer, where it stayed for several years. One day, my wife decided to clean out the desk, I started looking for a better place to keep the watch. Yea, right. What I did was start a new hobby.
Concealed under the back cover of this watch is a very finely detailed and intricate movement. The jewels are set in solid gold mounts. There is gold lettering and other detail work. Hard to believe all this fine detail was meant to be concealed behind a solid cover. A few scratches left by some careless person were enough to convince me not to take this watch to another "professional". Some jewelery stores have a hard time replacing batteries in modern quartz watches. I've been doing those myself ever since my wife brought three of hers home in pieces. They had new batteries, but the store she took them to couldn't reinstall the backs!!!
That meant buying some special tools. Working on the pocket watch will require more tools. A quick web search turned up many specialized watchmaking tools, and information, COOL! Some tools are universal, I already had a couple sets of precision screwdrivers, small pliers, and precision measuring tools.
Another thing I lacked was information. It isn't that long ago that the search for information would have required several trips to the library. Now all we have to do is "Google it". What I wanted, and easily found, was a few enthusiasts and collectors who are keeping the art of watchmaking alive. The necessary knowledge is certainly available. The skills are much like other precision repair work. One very good recommendation was, "Do not practice on a valuable antique! There are plenty of less-valuable time pieces available for training.
This watch is a Waltham 18s, Model 1892, Vanguard Grade, 21 Jewels, Adjusted, Stem Wind, Lever Set, Open Face. The serial number puts the year of manufacture at 1902.
The movement was installed in a Fahys MONTAUK gold-filled case marked "Guaranteed 20 Years". The open face case is easy enough to get into. The back and front simply unscrew.
After removing the back cover, the first obvious issue is the balance wheel. This one is loose and will flop sideways. That isn't right. This is the wheel that normally rotates back and forth (tick-tock). While the case is open is a good time to write down all the names and numbers inside. This watch appears to be clean and in pretty good shape. The crystal, dial, and hands are in great shape, but the case is badly worn. The gold finish is worn completely off the back and the movement is not held securely in the case. There are two case screws, but one screw head has pulled through the edge of the case. The inside of the watch is clean, with no visible dirt, or rust. However any oil has probably turned into a solid.
This is the view that did it. The movement is a work of art. I have to get this working.
Anyone who repairs anything knows that parts are expensive. If you need more than a few parts, the repair cost quickly becomes excessive. Sentimental value only goes so far. Even if I could find someone I trust with this watch, proper cleaning was going to cost almost $100. Repairing the balance, could easily double the cost. Then there was the issue of finding a repairman that I could trust to do the job right. My first inclination is to try and fix it myself. I may fail, but that is a possibility every time I pick up a tool.
In the past, the best way to acquire spare parts, was to buy similar items that are also broken. Two broken items can nearly always make one good one. The left-over spare parts can often be sold for more than the broken item cost. That is a little harder to do with pocket watches. For one thing, most collectors prefer that a pocket watch be as original as possible. Many of the parts will even have at least part of the serial number engraved on them. Swapping parts is not a great idea. Plus, there are so many different models, finding a suitable donor watch is difficult.
I still wanted/needed a similar pocket watch for training. Similar watches generally go for as low as $25 on ebay, but I wanted something that was working, and only needed to be cleaned. That's going to cost a little more, but should be nice enough to add to my collection. Yep, I'm hooked if two watches already seems like a collection.
My first "parts" watch was a Waltham, 18s, model 1892, 845 grade, with 21 jewels. That was pretty close to the 1892 Vanguard, without spending too much. It came in a plain gold-filled case, and was in very nice condition, running strong. One look inside, and I had already dropped the "parts" designation. This one was too nice to practice on, but it did allow me to SEE how the Vanguard should work.
The next watch that found it's way into my mailbox was a Waltham, 18s, model 1883, 18 grade, with 7 jewels. This watch is nothing special, but it came in a very nice, fancy, gold-filled case. That was my main motivation, I wanted that case for my Dad's watch.
Watch Collectors have widely differing views on what they consider original.
FACT: When these watches were purchased new, watch movements and cases were still being made by different companies. The customer would select the grade and size of watch movement, and select a case. The watchmaker would then install the movement into the case. Cases were often replaced as they began to show wear. Many of the original solid gold and gold-filled cases have been "cashed in" and replaced with less expensive, silver, gold-filled, or steel cases.
For many collectors, if the case is correct for the age of the movement, and they could have been assembled together for the original customer, that is good enough to be considered "original". Some collectors disagree and go to great pains to verify that the case is the original one that the movement was first installed in.
Since this is my web site, I am allowed to have an opinion. For the vast majority of antique pocket watches, there is nothing that ties a particular case to a particular movement. In my humble opinion, swapping cases does not matter, as long as the case is close to the same age as the watch, and there are no obvious marks from a previous movement on the case. For example, often the case screws will be in a slightly different location. If there are previous marks that make it obvious the watch has been re-cased, that is bad. Even so, most people would prefer owning a re-cased watch in fine condition than a watch in a worn-out case.
Representing a re-cased watch as anything other than a re-cased watch is wrong. It is particularly wrong when some potential buyers may be assuming more value for the watch being in the "original" case. So, any watch I have that I believe is not in the original case, will be listed on my records as "re-cased".
An inscription on the case most often detracts from the value, unless the historical significance of the inscription has also been preserved, and can be confirmed. The inscription "To Molly from Sam" only adds value if we know who Molly and Sam are. A watch owned or presented by someone famous has a collectible value that has little to do with the watch itself. Looking at all the cases I have, none are engraved, but nearly all have at least two sets of case screw marks. These cases all look good, and have plenty of life left. I'm going to use them.
So, the family watch has been re-cased in the fancy gold-filled case. However, since there are people who feel the "original" value has just been ruined, I carefully wrapped the original case and put it away. Too many cases have been melted down for the gold. This one might be repairable. I've heard re-plating the case is possible. Gold plating would not be as thick as the original gold layer and re-plating tends to fill-in what is left of any design.
The Model 1883 movement is now installed in a nice Silverode Train case. Silverode is an alloy invented to look similar to silver. It looks good and is a great choice for a watch that might actually be carried. Solid Gold and Silver cases have gotten way too expensive and it's getting very hard to find good Gold-Filled cases.
Before I get too carried away with the terminology, here's a photo that should help.
This is not a step-by-step tutorial. This is how a complete rookie took apart, cleaned, and repaired a pocket watch.
My wife has an ultrasonic cleaner for jewelry that should work great for watch parts. I will not attempt to clean the family heirloom yet. Best to start with one of the lower-grade watches.
Cleaning a pocket watch requires complete disassembly so the individual parts can be cleaned. This first complete disassembly and re-assembly will be documented with photos and notes. It will be mostly notes since I don't have a camera that will take legible pictures of microscopic parts.
The Following Sequence is for a Waltham, Size 18, Model 1883, Grade 81, with 15 Jewels. This was the least expensive pocket watch in my "collection". It isn't running. It already has issues, so I have nothing to lose if I wreck something beyond repair.
Before taking anything apart, the first thing to do is find out if there is anything in there than can bite or cause problems. With these pocket watches we need to know how to safely let down the main spring. This is one of those cases where there is stored energy that you do not want released unexpectedly. The Model 1892 Vanguard has a locking click that is easily accessible as soon as the back cover of the case is removed. That's convenient. Other watches require some disassembly to get to the click. Look for a small lever in the vicinity of the main spring housing. It may be on the side of the movement when you remove it from the case. Please, make sure you understand this step or your partially disassembled watch may unexpectedly shoot pieces of itself all over the room.
Set Hands at 12:00.
Remove Front cover. Remove hands using a puller. Don't forget to use something to protect the dial. Most any thin plastic or paper material will work. Make a hole in the center just large enough to clear the pin, then add a slit from the center to the edge, so you can slide it under the hands. Inspect and "dress" the part of your puller that ends up facing the dial. Check for any burrs where the jaws slip under the hands. What you shoudl have is a chisel edge that will slip under the hands with a very smooth surface towards the dial face. File the tool if necessary to remove burrs.
Use the same face guard material for the second hand.
Replace the front cover. Flip watch over. Remove the back of the case.
There is one screw holding the Balance Cock in place. Remove that screw using the correct size screwdriver. As with all screws, the blade should perfectly fill the complete length and width of the slot.
Place one finger on the balance cock, then turn watch over, and carefully allow the balance cock and balance to drop loose. Another way to do this is grab the Balance Wheel and Cock with tweezers and lift them out together. Carefully set them aside till later. The only thing holding the balance to the cock is the hairspring. This is easily damaged! Don't allow the balance or the cock to dangle and flop around by the hairspring!
Identify the two case screws. Part of the screw head overlaps the edge of the case locking the movement in the case. Sometimes the screw head is clipped so you only have to rotate it until the case will go past the screw. If they are normal round head screws, remove them completely.
Remove the front cover. Place one hand under the watch face. Pull the stem out. The movement should easily pivot out the front of the case into your hand. Remove the 2 case screws if you didn't already do that.
Look for 3 tiny screws, recessed around the edge of the movement, that secure the Dial face. The dial has 3 pins that these screws clamp. Loosen or completely remove the screws. Make sure you loosen them enough to free the pins so the dial comes right off. DO NOT pry on the dial with any force, it should come off easy. Prying will crack it.
Under the dial face at the center will be the hour wheel which should have a spring washer on top. Pull those off and set aside.
If you have not already released the main spring tension, do that next. The Vanguard had the winding wheel and click visible on the back of the movement. This 1883 has the winding wheel under the dial and the click is on the side of the movement. The click was not accessible until the movement was removed from the case.
Do Not simply release the click! The mainspring will ZING and do more than just release tension. Hold the winding wheel so you can slowly let the tension off the mainspring. With the Vanguard, the movement was still in the case. I could hold the crown with my fingers, lift the click, and let it unwind slowly. With the 1883 the movement was out of the case so I had to restrain the winding wheel with my finger.
Under the hour wheel is the Cannon Pinion. This should lift off easy with heavy tweezers, or the same tool you used to remove hands.
Lift out the remaining loose gears. Keep the order and orientation of the gears straight. Take notes or photos.
The remaining gears that are retained in-place can remain unless they are noticably dirty.
Flip the movement face side down and remove the two screws that secure the bridge that holds the main spring in place. Remove the barrel bridge, then remove the main spring assembly. Take more notes and photos.
Look for three screws that secure the main plate. Remove those screws, then begin to gently pry the plate off. LOOK, there are four sets of jewels that hold the wheels and the pallet. Try to make sure everything stays on the front plate so you are removing just the plate. Any parts you pull off may be scattered when they fall off.
Once the plate is off, lift out the pallet, escape wheel, and other wheels in sequence. Take notes or photos showing position and arrangement of parts. Some Jewels can be disassembled. Two very small screws hold each jewel in place. Removing them may be the only way to thoroughly clean the two piece type with a cap over the bearing.
Ultrasonic cleaners are perfect for watch parts. My wife is the jewelery cleaning expert. So, I handed the loose parts to her. All went well until I saw her take the basket out of the cleaner and rinse them in the sink. Eeek! BIG MISTAKE! If normal water is bad, our tap water is horrible. I tried drying the parts, but all the wheels and plates now have hard water spots and deposits. Apparently rinsing jewelry in water is normal, since it will be worn on the skin. My bad. I was not familiar with the process. That was only a minor bump in the road. HOT water may be an acceptable rinse for some types of cleaning solutions. The trick here is to use a cleaning solution and rinse that are compatible. The cleaner my wife uses for jewelery is ammonia-based. Time to do some research and see what cleaners and rinses are specifically recommended for watch parts. Watch parts must dry quickly without deposits. Be very careful with some of the recommended cleaning supplies. Many are highly toxic and/or flammable. If you add "MSDS" to a search for specific product or chemical you should be able to download the "Material Safety Data Sheet". After reading that, you may decide to use something less toxic. After using a compatible ceaner and rinse, the watch parts came out looking great.
For each make and model of pocket watch, there are lists of parts that need oil or grease, and the type of lubricant to use. Use very small amounts, in only the places indicated, for the watch you are working on.
Do not use too much oil. More is not better, it just collects dirt and gets gummed up quicker.
Now another OOPS At least one web site suggests carefully stretching the hairspring to oil the jewel on the balance cock. I will never try that again. I think that is what pulled this hairspring out of alignment. Next time I will remove the hairspring and balance, or remove the jewel for cleaning/oiling.
Yea Right! It has NEVER been that simple when then manual stopped with those words.
Do not touch any of the parts you have just cleaned with your fingers. If only a tiny bit of oil is left on parts by your fingers, you would have been better off not cleaning the watch at all. There are several types of gloves or finger tips to choose from. Some people get really good with the tweezers. Some parts are too small for fingers anyway.
Set the main wheel and other wheels in place on the front cover. Then set the Escape Wheel and pallet lever.
Now the tricky part. The plate on my watch has a recess that the end of the pallet lever goes into. This recess is where the front Jewel for the Balance Wheel is located. Guide the plate into position from the side so the pallet lever goes into place and the plate lines up with the three pins where the screws go. When you get close, use your other three hands to guide the wheels into their jewel bearings.
Ok, it's not really that bad. Take a screwdriver, start at one end of the gear train and touch each wheel into the bearing as you lower that part of the plate. Work your way across and the plate will drop into place. Then install the three screws. Tighten the screws gradually, making sure the wheels and pallet are all in place and not binding in any way.
Time Out ! "Tighten" is the wrong word for some folks. LOOK at the size of those screws. Tight is a relative term. These screws do not need to be as tight as the lug nuts on your car! Good luck finding a helicoil thread kit that will work in a watch. Strip one of those screws and it will really take a bit of watch MAKING to repair the mistake.
Slide the Main Spring into place. If you are planning to actually carry this watch on a regular basis, it's a good idea to replace the main spring. Get a main spring winder tool if you plan to do that.
Replace the bridge, making sure the main spring goes in place and tighten the screws.
Flip the movement over and reassemble the gear train on the face plate. Replace the Canon Pinion and finish with the Hour Wheel and spring washer.
Replace the watch dial and secure with the three small screws around the edge of the movement.
Make sure the Crown is still up and slip the movement back into the case.
Snap the crown down and replace the case screws.
Reinstall the hands at 12:00 and the second hand using the correct size pushers. Make sure the hands are parallel and do not hit each other or anything on the dial.
Reinstall the front cover on the case.
Set the Balance and Balance Cock into place with the pin correctly oriented to the pallet.
Replace the screw when you are sure the balance is placed correctly.
Wind the watch and, if you did everything right, it will immediately start running.
When I finished with this watch it did not run. Of course, it didn't run when I started, but I had high hopes. Stretching the hairspring to oil the jewel bearing was a mistake. The hairspring is now sitting crooked and dragging on the balance. As soon as I gently lift the hairspring, the watch starts running fine??? Looking closely, there is some rust on the hairspring, that may be part of the problem. Stretching it may have pushed it over the edge. I have spent more than a few minutes trying to re-form the hairspring. Obviously, securing the hairspring stud should not pull it out of alignment. Re-forming a bent hairspring is a true test of patience and perserverance.
Before bending on the hairspring, there are some other alignment issues that may have "slipped". The jewel and roller(s) should be oriented correctly in relation to the pallet. Then the hairspring should be oriented so the stud can be secured in place with no tension placed on the hairspring. Leave the hairspring stud disconnected. View the position of the stud as the balance is rotated into the pallet from both directions. The stud should move the same distance either side of the mounting point.
It took almost infinite patience, but the hairspring is now clean, straight, the watch runs, and keeps good time.
The first part my Vanguard watch needed is a new Balance Staff. Disassembling a balance, hairspring, and rollers so I could replace the staff was beyond my current skill-level. I did find a Balance Complete that would fit. A Balance Complete is a balance with the staff, rollers, and hairspring fully-assembled, ready to set in the watch. It's a little more complicated than just setting the balance in the watch. The balance staff must fit in the jewels loose enough to spin free, but tight enough that it can't flop around. The clearances are so tight, and parts are so sensitive, a piece of hair or the wrong oil can keep it from working properly.
A watch that is 100 years old has probably been handled by a few watchmakers over the years. Some watchmakers have a bad habit of making the watch fit the new part. It is a far better habit to make the replacement part fit the watch. This keeps the watch (or whatever you are working on) as original as possible. That is a big help when someone is trying to buy parts. The balance complete I ended up buying is not correct for the original watch, but it was the best match for what I had to work with. Eventually, I will be looking for parts to put the Vanguard back the way it was originally made. For now, I'm happy that it runs.
It's WAY too soon to call myself a watchmaker. I have been replacing batteries, bands, and sizing watch bands for years. The recent success and experience with pocket watches has turned into other more aggressive repair projects. My wife's solid gold watch, that hadn't worked in years, is now working. I had to replace the movement. Plucking those tiny hands off without damaging the dial was difficult. I tried several types of plastic and paper as a guard before I found something thin enough. My wife is very pleased to have that watch working again. My sister is bringing me an antique cuckoo clock. I started to tell her a clock and a watch are not the same, but it won't hurt to take a look at it.
My collection of Waltham Pocket watches is now up to 5. It's a small collection, but good quality. All are size 18 Waltham watches. Not shown here is a Lady Waltham purchased for my wife. It's a very nice size 0, with Gold-Filled hunter case.
This is my Father's Model 1892, Vanguard that got me started. It runs, but needs cleaning. I now have the correct parts to restore the original type balance staff, double-roller, and pallet.
Decent Model 1883, Grade 18, Runs, but badly needs cleaning.
This 1883 has a heavy silverode case. The train is nicer than it looks in this picture.
Strong-Running Model 1892, Grade 845. Keeps great time and it's in very good condition.
Model 1883, Grade 81, This one was my first dissassembly, cleaning, reassembly victim. It's not as fine to look at, but a good runner.
A VERY NICE Model 1892, Vanguard. Probably paid too much, but it's in extremely good condition, runs strong, keeps great time, and was just serviced.
Like everything else collectable, there is a club, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc.
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If you have any questions, problems with this site, or the information on it, please send me a message at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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