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Looking After a Mechanical Watch

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

This page is about caring for a mechanical watch. This falls broadly into three categories, servicing, waterproofing and shock protection, but you also need to be careful what assumptions you make when you are buying a watch, so I start with that.

Like all mechanisms with moving parts, a mechanical watch needs oil to allow parts to slide against each other easily and without wearing. Because of this a mechanical watch needs servicing from time to time, to clean out the old oil and replace it with fresh. Over time oil dries up and stops doing its job, or even worse it absorbs dust from the atmosphere and turns into a grinding paste. If you don't have it serviced your watch might continue to run, but wear can be building up inside. When it does eventually stop, which it inevitably will, it might be uneconomic or even impossible to get it repaired.

Waterproof watches don't remain waterproof for ever without care and attention from time to time. Seals and gaskets age and perish, and the manufacturers will recommend service intervals because of this if nothing else. If you don't pay attention to this and just assume that your watch is waterproof, then water might get in, and if it does it can cause serious if not terminal damage to the movement. If you haven't followed the manufacturers service recommendations you can't blame them.

I touch on that favourite phrase of vendors seeking to suggest that a watch that isn't working doesn't really have much wrong with it and is merely "overwound", which sounds quite innocuous. The term overwound is not used by watchmakers and has no technical meaning. A watch that isn't going might have any one of a myriad of faults, ranging from something very trivial that can be easily fixed to something terminal, but being "overwound" is not one of them.

Most modern watches, watches made after WW2, have shock protection and will withstand being dropped. But the watches that I am interested in, from around the time of the Great War, do not have built in shock protection and should not be shocked; I explain why.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page.


When Buying a Watch

If you buy a watch without a warranty that it has been recently cleaned and oiled, you should get it serviced without delay or risk causing wear such that when the watch eventually does stop, as it inevitably will, it is impossible or uneconomic to repair. Read the section further down this page about what servicing a mechanical watch entails, and why it is important.

Any watch purchased without a guarantee that it is waterproof should be treated as if it is not waterproof, simply on the precautionary principle.

Be very careful of watches that are not going. If the vendor says that the problem will be easy to fix, ask him how he knows this, and why he hasn't had it fixed; watches that are going are worth more than watches that are not. If it is not worth him spending his money to fix the problem, it might be because it would cost more than the watch is worth. Caveat emptor means "let the buyer beware" and if you are the buyer it is in your interest to be very aware. The remarks below about why a watch described as being "over wound" might actually have stopped apply equally well to any watch that is not running.

Over Wound

One very common description by sellers is that a watch is not going because it has been "over wound". This is nonsense. It is like saying that a car won't start because the fuel tank is full of fuel. Don't believe stories that being over wound is a fault in itself, or that a watch will stop because it is over wound. Just like a car with a full tank of fuel that won't start, the reason a fully watch won't go is because there is something wrong with it, not because it is fully wound. This might be something simple that is easy to fix, and it might be something serious that could be very expensive, or even impossible, to fix.

It is really quite difficult to damage a watch by winding it — unless you have a grip like a vice, muscles like a gorilla, and no sense of feeling. Watches are built to be worn by normal human beings. You can't actually stop a watch by "over winding" it. When the spring is fully wound and the crown stops turning, just let go. Don't keep pressure on when it is fully wound because this can cause the balance to swing too far and, in extreme cases, damage the impulse jewel.

If you have had a watch for a few years and it doesn't wind easily, varies in its timekeeping or stops unexpectedly, then it most likely needs a service. All mechanical watches need a service every few years to clean out old gummed up oil and replace it with fresh. You wouldn't run a car for years without changing the oil, would you?

However, if you are thinking about buying a watch and the seller describes it as over wound, then you need to be extremely cautious. The seller might actually believe that this is the problem, or they might be trying to hide the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the watch; caveat emptor, buyer beware.

If it was your watch and it stopped working, then you would know its history and whether you had done something to it, such as dropped it. But with an unknown watch you don't know what has happened to it in its lifetime. It may be that the watch has not been serviced and the oil has gummed up; a simple service would sort this out fairly cheaply. But it could also be that there is a more severe problem, such as a broken balance staff or some internal wear or damage. This would be more expensive to rectify, quite possibly much more expensive, and sometimes even impossible, to fix — or impossibly expensive.

Once you get to know a bit about watches you will be able to make a judgement on this. If the balance is swinging freely and doesn't wobble on its pivots, and there is no obvious damage, then you can be fairly sure that a service will sort out the problem. But if you are not confident in assessing this, it may be better to pass on until you have more experience.

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Servicing a Watch

A watch needs to be cleaned and oiled every so often because the oils and greases used to lubricate the moving parts thicken then dry out. Oil or grease that is dried out cannot lubricate the moving surfaces adequately and they wear or, even worse, over time oil can mix with dust from the atmosphere to form a grinding paste that quickly wears parts. Spare parts for old watches are often no longer available, so a worn out part can mean that an old watch cannot be repaired economically.

Modern watches with fully sealed waterproof cases can go longer between services than older watches with less well sealed cases. Case joints that are not well sealed allows dust and fluff into the case. Fluff is a nuisance, but dust is worse because it can combine with oil to form a grinding paste that quickly wears components. Old watches with less than fully waterproof cases should be cleaned and oiled every three or four years, more modern watches with fully waterproof cases can go longer, five or six years, or even as much as ten years for watches with co-axial escapements.

If you wind up an old watch and it seems to be running OK, bear in mind that although the components inside the watch are very small and consequently delicate. Human muscles, and even a fully wound mainspring, can generate powerful forces that can damage delicate components — see the section below about damaged stem bearings to see the damage that winding a watch everyday can do if this mechanism is not adequately lubricated.

Watches will continue to run for a surprisingly long time without being serviced. But by continuing to run a watch that has not been serviced for a long time, you might be building up wear and damage inside the watch that you can't see. This will become apparent when eventually the watch stops, at which point the damage might be so bad that it cannot be repaired.

Replacement parts for old watches are usually no longer available. In theory all the parts can be made for a mechanical watch by a skilled watchmaker, but this is expensive and might not be economic. And some parts are easier to make than others - I wouldn't fancy trying to make a balance spring, and these are now getting in short supply for older watches — even stocks of some mainsprings are running down. And I still haven't repaired the damaged stem bearings shown in the section below. I know how to do it in theory; bore out and sleeve. But in practice, accurately boring and sleeving a a bearing in a wristwatch plate a few millimetres thick is not an easy operation without expensive equipment that most watch repairers don't have.

Remember that these old watches have survived through many years and events until now, and it is your responsibility to take care of them and make sure you pass them on in good working condition. A mechanical watch that is regularly serviced could still be working just as well in centuries from now as the day it left the factory; you can't say that about electrical or electronic watches.

Regular servicing is particularly important for old hand wound watches because

There are two methods of cleaning and lubricating a movement:

  1. The first method places the complete movement in the cleaning machine through a wash and two rinses, the second rinse containing a lubricant, and that's it. There are two problems with this method. It seems to me that the cleaning fluid will not be able to clean difficult to reach places such as the jewel holes with the pivots in them, although I understand that the end or cap stones are removed before cleaning. These need to be cleaned thoroughly to remove congealed oil. Perhaps a powerful ultrasonic machine can do this. I am sure that a single, necessarily very fine, lubricant cannot be ideal for all the different duties of each part of the mechanism, from the fast moving but lightly loaded balance staff to the slow moving but heavily loaded keyless work. This method is certainly quick and cheap, but the downside is probably that it needs to be repeated more often than a full strip and oil.
  2. The second method, and the only valid one in my view although it is more expensive, is a full strip, clean and lubricate, where the movement is completely dismantled, the parts are cleaned and rinsed in a specialised watch cleaning fluids, each component then examined for cleanliness and further cleaned if required, e.g. the jewel holes are "pegged out", which means a sharpened piece of special wood is pushed into the hole to remove any last traces of dried gummy old oil, and the movement then reassembled with the correct lubricant applied where it is needed. I use at least four different lubricants depending on the duty of each component, ranging from a grease for the keyless work and barrel arbor pivots where there is high torque and low speed, through to a light oil for the pivots of the faster train wheels, and a thixotropic grease for the escape pallet faces. These specialised oils and greases are very expensive, the grease that is used only on the pallet faces works out at well over £100,000 per gallon! (fortunately I don't buy it by the gallon.)

Before committing your watch to be serviced it is always best to ask which method will be used, simply for the avoidance of doubt. I once purchased some equipment from a watchmaker who used to work for the principal jewellery retailer of a reasonable sized town and an Omega agent. He told me that he used the first method on Omega watches for many years. I was astonished. There is no doubt that a quick dunk like this will get a watch going, but the lubricant carried in the final rinse has to be very thin because it has to go everywhere in the movement without gumming it up, so it doesn't last very long, and it can't adequately lubricate bearings under heavy load such as in the keyless work for winding and setting. More wristwatches are scrapped because of worn out bearings in the keyless work than due to any other reason - see the section on keyless work below.


Badly worn stem bearing

Stem Bearings

Stem wound and set watches, that is the type of watch that you wind up by the crown and set the time by pulling crown out away from the case, incorporate a "keyless mechanism". It is called this because you don't need a separate watch key to wind or set the watch, hence the watch is keyless. The most common "shifting sleeve" form of keyless work was invented in 1845 by Adrien Philippe, who later joined the Geneva company of Patek to form Patek Philippe. You can read more about the various forms of keyless work at Keyless Work.

The action of turning the crown to wind the the watch or set the time is carried into the mechanism by a metal shaft called the "stem". When you pull the crown out to set the time, the stem is drawn out and the keyless work, a system of levers, disengages the winding mechanism and engages the time setting mechanism.

If a watch is manual winding, then it has to be wound every day to keep going. Although the stem winding keyless mechanism is a clever piece of design, the bearings are small and not jewelled. If a watch is not regularly serviced and grease in the stem bearings renewed they can wear heavily. It is not unusual that a watch that otherwise runs perfectly well becomes impossible to repair because of wear in the stem bearings and keyless work, so it pays to be aware of this potential problem.

Wear in the stem bearings is the Achilles heel of manually wound watches. Automatic watches that wind themselves as the wearer moves around do not suffer anything like as much from this problem, because the stem is only used occasionally.

The picture here shows the outer stem bearing in the bottom plate of a watch. It is very badly worn - the tops of the ridges standing up from the bearing surface give an idea of where the original surface was and how much wear has occurred. This degree of wear has almost certainly been caused by the wearer winding his watch while it was still on his wrist. Although it is possible to slide a finger between the crown and your wrist with the watch in place and turn the crown, this picture shows you why this is a very bad idea. Jamming the finger between the wrist and the crown causes excessive side force on the crown and the stem, which has to be carried by this bearing. And as you can see, the bearing is not adequate to withstand this treatment and wears badly.

The moral of this is: always take off your watch to wind it, try to avoid sideways force on the crown as far as possible, and also have the watch serviced regularly to get the stem bearings lubricated. If you wait until your watch stops running or you can no longer wind it, it might be too late!

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Watch Repairers

I have learnt to service, repair and restore my own watches but I don't have the time to do this for other people so I don't offer this service. It takes time and money to accumulate the tools and skills to do this, but if you have patience and good dexterity you can learn to do it. There are two ways to learn, either by trial and error using movements bought cheaply from ebay, or by taking courses. In either case you should get a good book such as Hans Jendritzki's "The Swiss watch repairer's manual" and read it thoroughly. Taking courses is the quicker route, you will be shown how to work effectively and avoid mistakes. I can recommend the courses run by the BHI at Upton Hall.

However, if you don't want to do your own servicing and repairs, you need to find a watch repairer. Before you hand over your treasured watch you must, and I can't emphasise this strongly enough, you must make sure that the person who is going to work on it is competent in servicing and repairing mechanical watches. A local watch tinkerer who can change straps and batteries, or a high street jeweller, is unlikely to be familiar with old mechanical watches, despite what they might say. Even someone who is capable of servicing a modern mechanical watch may be only used to fitting manufacturer's replacement parts, which are simply not available for older watches. I have seen some real disasters from going down the high street route.

If you do choose to try a local person or shop, be on your utmost caution, and don't automatically believe everything they say. Here is an amusing anecdote from one of my customers.

When the watch was to be passed on to me after my grandfather's death, my mother first took it in to the most respected local jeweller to be checked over. A "hushed whispers" sort of place - I'm sure you know what I mean. She was told that it was completely worn out and they could only suggest they take it off her hands for its scrap value. Fortunately my mother was no mug, and took it round to a trusted local jobbing watchmender, who said it was in really good condition for its age and only needed cleaning!

If you can find a trusted local jobbing watchmender like this, then you are in luck. On a typical high street you are more likely to find the first type of place!

Many years ago I entrusted a watch of mine to a jewellers in a nearby town, who described themselves as specialists in elite jewellery and prestige Swiss watches. They persuaded me that it was not necessary to send the watch to the manufacturer's service agent because their own service department could do it just as well, and more quickly and cheaply. They didn't change the case seals before testing the watch for water resistance, which it naturally failed and they noted on the invoice. But in the process water had got into the case and that evening I saw droplets of water condensing inside the glass. Even though I immediately took the back off and pulled the movement out, the dial, hands and movement were all ruined. They were replaced by the manufacturer's service agent, who also changed the case seals and guaranteed that the watch was waterproof. It was a very expensive lesson.

A competent and reliable watch repairer who has many years of experience in servicing and repairing mechanical watches is Owen Gilchrist, based in Bristol. Owen is very active in the BHI and regularly gives demonstrations of watch servicing to BHI meetings. I know Owen well, I have seen his work and I am happy to recommend him. Contact Owen preferably by voice or text on 07804 816724. Owen's email is — if you send an email make sure you include a telephone number so that Owen can contact you. Please mention that you got his details from me.

Another competent and reliable watch repairer who is experienced in servicing and repairing mechanical watches is Robert Horan. Robert regularly writes about watch repairs in the BHI Journal, demonstrating very thorough and high quality work and a willingness and ability to repair watches that many repairers would not take on. I know Robert, I have seen his work and I am happy to recommend him. Robert is located in the Charente region of France on the Dordogne border. Contact him through his web site at Robert Horan, please mention that you got his details from me.

If you prefer to try and find someone who works close to where you live, try the list of BHI Registered Repairers. However, if you restrict yourself to someone local you might not be using the best person for the work. Watch repairers who are prepared to spend the time and have the necessary skills to work on old watches are few and far between, most so-called watch repairers prefer to change batteries or movements on modern watches because it is quick and easy, and doesn't require a lot of time invested in learning and tools. Don't be afraid to post your watch to somebody competent using a tracked service like Royal Mail Special Delivery.

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Waterproofing

Before a watch described by the manufacturer as waterproof left the factory, it would have been tested to be waterproof, and it would have carried a guarantee to that effect. When it was subsequently serviced over the years the waterproof seals should have been renewed, and the waterproofing tested and guaranteed. A factory licensed watchmaker would do this, but they are expensive and people often shop around for a cheaper price. One of the easiest things to leave out that doesn't appear to affect the going of the watch is changing the seals and testing and guaranteeing the waterproofing; the receipt usually has "waterproofing not tested or guaranteed" stamped on it so there is no mistake. In normal use this is not a problem, which is why they can get away with it, but the watch must never be exposed to water, even when washing hands it should be taken off first.

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Shock Protection

The pivots of the balance staff of a watch are made very thin to minimise friction, and therefore delicate. If a watch is dropped or knocked, the shock can bend or break the balance staff's pivots and cause the watch to stop or run inaccurately. Pocket watches and early wristwatches were both subject to this problem. It was not so much of a problem for pocket watches, which were normally kept in a pocket and only received a shock if accidentally dropped, but wristwatches are in a very vulnerable position at the end of the arm where they are very prone to getting knocked. Broken balance staff pivots were a common occurrence in early wristwatches and every watchmaker kept extensive stocks of spare balance staffs.

Many shock protection system were devised to overcome this problem. Abraham Louis Breguet invented a suspension for the balance staff of watches which he called the "parachute". But the first commercial and widely used shock protection system was Incabloc, invented in the 1930s by Fritz Marti.

Most modern watches, watches made after WW2, have built in shock protection like Incabloc and will withstand being dropped. But watches made before WW2 do not usually have built in shock protection. You have to be the shock protection for these watches, make sure that they are not knocked hard, dropped or otherwise given sharp shocks.

In the days when all watches were mechanical and before shock protection came along, all watchmakers kept stocks of replacement balance staffs and would change a broken staff cheaply. Today, because it is done so rarely, replacing a balance staff can be very expensive.

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Case Repairs

If you have a watch case that needs repairing, get in touch with my good friend Adam Phillips. Adam is a goldsmith with over 30 years experience in the making and repair of all types of watch case, from antique pocket watches to modern wristwatches.


If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2017. W3CMVS.