Sunday, November 13, 2011
I'm exploring a new hobby. I do that every few years. I'm tinkering with mechanical wristwatches.
My first objective was to take apart a watch movement and then put it back together so that it still runs. I just accomplished that yesterday, and I feel as proud of it as if it's an egg I just laid. I even sorted out a problem it had. It doesn't run very well, but no worse than when I started, and I didn't actually do anything that ought to make it run better. Just disassembled and reassembled it. Three times, actually; I had done something wrong the first two times and it didn't run.
I still need some tools to be able to try my hand at cleaning and oiling it. That's my next objective. I figure the odds of the watch surviving my tender ministrations are about 25%. Yesterday morning I would've said 5%, so that's an improvement. It's a really beat-up looking Citizen about as old as I am, and I picked it up at a fleamarket for not much money, so it's no great loss to humanity even if it gives up its life in the name of science.
I've learned a quite a lot already, about what makes watches tick, and what I'm looking for in watch projects, and even a bit about why bother in the first place.
I like tinkering with stuff. I like solving problems. I'm pretty good at fine detail work; when I was a kid I built lots of model ships and planes and such, and painted D&D miniatures. I've enjoyed tinkering with bicycles, but ever since I built a fixed-gear, there hasn't been much to do there, the damn thing just doesn't need any tinkering. Anyway it's a bit messy to do in an apartment. And I've always liked watches.
Another thing is that I'm getting increasinly pissed off at our throwaway culture. Watches are a perfect example of it, replete with ironies too. The Chinese are making some excellent knock-offs of classic Swiss movements, copies so exact that individual pieces are interchangeable. These movements are designed to be serviced. There are spare parts available. Everything comes apart, down to the last machined component.
Yet it makes no economic sense to service one—simply because at the labor costs we have, you can buy four new ones for the cost of professionally cleaning and oiling one. So they're thrown away. The same applies to just about any mechanical wristwatch that isn't one of the luxury brands—Omega, Rolex, Breitling, and so on. Yet the cheap Citizen I messed with is just as capable of running for just as many generations as the fanciest of Patek Philippes, if somebody just takes care of it.
I figured it might be fun to be that somebody.
I'm not that somebody yet. I'm only just starting. But I proved to myself yesterday that basic watch repair is a skill I can teach myself, and it's something that can be endlessly deepened. And I really enjoyed it.
I've bought three junk watches so far. One of them is the Citizen. One of them is irredeemably broken; I bought it so I could have something to experiment with without having to worry about breaking it. One runs really well and has been pretty well maintained too, but it has a cheap brass case with chrome flaking off and is actually kinda ugly. I think it also has a radium dial, and I'm not sure I want to inhale any of the lume that has flaked off. So I'm not sure what to do with that one.
I'm not going to attempt to mess with anything that's actually valuable at this point. Perhaps later. But if you have an almost-working mechanical wristwatch knocking around in a drawer somewhere—stainless steel case, preferably—drop me a line. I might be interested in taking it off your hands and making it my next project.
And if I get any of them working, I'll send them out into the world again, one way or another.