Until recently, watches have been entirely mechanical where each wheel, gear, and mechanism representing a milestone in our understanding of precision manufacturing and timekeeping.
Today it is nearly impossible to find watchmakers to service or repair vintage mechanical pocket and wristwatches, so we have to do it ourselves. Learn to repair vintage mechanical watches. You can do this and we’ll show you how.
They tick, mechanical watches have a pulse. First created in the 16th century by locksmiths, these early watches could only resolve time down to the hour and for this reason displayed time with only one hour hand.
By the 18th century fusee technology enabled watches to achieve accuracies to within seconds.
The Waltham Watch Co. was the first to democratize portable time keeping by developing a process to mass produce high quality watches that were extremely accurate. Prices were equivalent to a MacBook or an iPad in today’s money. The American watch industry led the way in developing a world-class product that with a little maintenance, could last forever.
But ladies’ watches were pushing the bounds of what was possible, at the cutting edge of small. Ladies’ watches led to the development of the (smaller than a pocket watch) wrist watches.
Widespread adaptation of wrist watches occurred in the 1930’s. Although less accurate than pocket watches, wrist watches were significantly more convenient. The swiss lead the way in post-war wrist watch technology.
A hobby where you must do it yourself
You must be able to clean and repair your own watch if you want to go vintage. Watchmakers are a dying breed, if you can find one expect to pay $200-$400 to get your watch repaired. Besides, most of the fun is being able to wear something you repaired yourself. Pop your watch open at parties and explain how it works to your friends.
There is no such thing as ‘over wound,’ what actually happens is dirt and grime builds up on the bearings so that wheels (gears actually, the gears are referred to as wheels) can not turn as freely, preventing the movement from running. The movement is geared up significantly from the winding spring (spring barrel) where one turn of the spring barrel causes hundreds of turns of the second hand. Unfortunately with such gearing there is very little torque at the second hand. For this reason the slightest bit of dirt and grime in the bearings throughout the gear train causes a movement to stop running. Most of the time when you buy a broken mechanical watch all it needs is to be cleaned and oiled. But this is not as easy as it seems, you must completely tear down your watch movement, clean each little part, reassemble and oil it.
Where to learn
This video will show you how a modern watch works starting with the spring barrel down to the balance wheel:
To learn watch repair read the manual, US ARMY TM9-1575 (PDF). In World War II numerous manuals like this were written to train any 18-year-old to learn advanced skills in a short period of time.
Cleaning and oiling
To make it run again you will have to completely take it apart, clean its mechanical parts and plates in an ultrasonic cleaner, and oil as you put it back together following the procedure in TM9-1575.
Step by step how-to videos
For videos of watch repairs and cleanings of all types of pocket and wrist watches, check out this YouTube channel on watch repair.
How to take apart (be prepared for a very interesting commentary):
Re-assembly is time-consuming and this is often where things break. In this video, [bunnspecial] completes re-assembly in 33 min, which is very quick. Here’s how to reassemble after cleaning (again, another colorful commentary):
Tools you will need
Get a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers; good ones from the US, Swiss, or French made, not Chinese made ones. Screws in vintage watches are tougher than the screw driver tips, cheap screwdrivers will disintegrate quickly.
- Movement holder
- Watch oil
- Ultrasonic cleaner
- Cleaning solution and rinse
- Jeweler’s tweezers, non magnetic
- Other small tools you probably already have.
Start your collection
You can buy vintage watches at antique shops or on ebay, they are not too expensive. Expect to pay $50-100 for a serviceable American men’s pocket watch (Waltham, Elgin) and slightly more for a high end American pocket watch (Hamilton, Hampton, Illinois). $10-100 for a vintage wrist watch, depending on style and condition. Key issue you must look for is a good balance staff. One way to test for this is to take a toothpick and touch the balance wheel and observe if it moves freely, if so then you should be able to service the watch. Also, if the watch runs somewhat and stops it likely has a good balance staff.
Join the community
Need help or want to learn more, take classes, and goto meet-ups? Join the NAWCC and seek answers to your questions on their forums.
Grandpa’s heirloom watch
Do not restore a watch that has a great deal of meaning to you. Expect to damage or permanently break your first one or two pocket watches and about half of your first wristwatches. Even as you get better at this I would not recommend cleaning a high-end Chrono. If you can’t live with yourself if you break or damage it then don’t restore it yourself, have a pro do it. Unfortunately watch repair shops are few and far between these days and most can not handle the complexity of a vintage mechanical movement. The best one I’ve worked with is just north of Detroit, J&W Watch and Clock Repair. These guys are so old school they do not even have a website, so you’ll have to call them up and mail it in.
You can do this
Watch repair is a fascinating hobby, one of the few that is actually worth doing yourself. There is nothing more satisfying than taking apart a dead movement, making repairs and cleaning, then seeing it run again. Express yourself, wear vintage, make a connection with history and always have a story at the next social gathering explaining how these little machines work.
Gregory L. Charvat, Ph.D is author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems, visiting research scientist at Camera Culture Group Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, co-founder of Hyperfine Research Inc. and Butterfly Network Inc., editor of the Gregory L. Charvat Series on Practical Approaches to Electrical Engineering, and guest commentator on CNN, CBS, Sky News, and others. He was a technical staff member at MIT Lincoln Laboratory from September 2007 to November 2011, where his work on through-wall radar won best paper at the 2010 MSS Tri-Services Radar Symposium and is an MIT Office of the Provost 2011 research highlight. He has taught short radar courses at MIT, where his Build a Small Radar course was the top-ranked MIT professional education course in 2011 and has become widely adopted by other universities, laboratories, and private organizations. Starting at an Early Age, Greg developed numerous radar systems,rail SAR imaging sensors, phased array radar systems; holds several patents; and has developed many other sensors and radio and audio equipment. He has authored numerous publications and received a great deal of press for his work. Greg earned a Ph.D in electrical engineering in 2007, MSEE in 2003, and BSEE in 2002 from Michigan State University, and is a senior member of the IEEE, where he served on the steering committee for the 2010, 2013, and 2016 IEEE International Symposium on Phased Array Systems and Technology and chaired the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society Boston Chapter from 2010-2011.