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.


  1. Congratulations! Some weeks ago I tried to repair a kitchen timer (pear-shaped enclosure, it was a nice thing). Its plastic movement (no jewels) did not survive my loving care; but I got a glimpse of how it works, and I thought, it would be great to be able to disassemble/assemble a mechanical watch.

    So good luck with your endeavours, and, if sometime you have time to spare, please publish a list of the tools you are using.

  2. They're not much fun. Not designed for repair. If something there breaks, it means it's really broken -- a piece of plastic cracks, or something like that. I've looked at those too, before.

    As to the tools... thus far I've used:

    * Case wrench, for opening the screw-type case
    * Hand lift, for lifting off the hands
    * Three watchmaker's screwdrivers (1.0, 0.8, 0.6 mm)
    * Two pairs of sharp steel tweezers
    * One pair of sharp brass tweezers, for handling the hands (they don't scratch)
    * One pair of plastic tweezers, for handling the face (even less scratchy)
    * Movement holder, for holding the movement (that's in the piccie)
    * One spike, for pushing things (e.g. the little stud that releases the crown and stem)
    * One siliconized cloth (plus PolyWatch), for polishing the crystal
    * One loupe, for seeing things very close up

    I'll also need a hands pusher when it's time to replace the hands, and oil needles when I get to the oiling part. I would need a crystal lift to get the crystal out, but this one is good enough so I'll skip that for now. To get the parts clean, I've ordered an ultrasound washer—sounds high-tech but they're not, really; even Lidl sells one.

    That sounds like a lot, but isn't all that much, really. I bought an inexpensive Indian-made watchmaker's toolkit that contains most of those. I figured that since I don't really know what I'll need, I'll buy something that's merely adequate to start with. I have already figured out that I'll probably want some slightly better screwdrivers somewhere along the line; one of these is magnetized which is annoying because parts stick to it.

    Two non-tools that have been real lifesavers are (1) my little Canon S90 digital camera, and (2) a desk lamp that has a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a magnifying glass. I took a picture of every stage of disassembly, and my parts tray when about to rearrange things. There's no way I could've gotten everything back in without the pictures for reference.

  3. Hi Petteri,

    Thanks a lot for the tool kit 'Bill of Materials'. If/when I take the hobby, I guess I will also look for a "watchmaker beginner's kit".
    The tip to photograph every step is only obvious after having read it, maybe you should patent it ("method and apparatus to assist in the assemblage of complex machinery" could be an obfuscated enough title).

    A close friend of mine collects watch 'replicas', Chinese made quality copies of extremely expensive Swiss pieces. The copies cost €100-€300, so the originals must be obscene. I don't see (yet) the point of owning more than one watch, but the things are really beautiful. Being able to see the different parts (power storage, regulation, time calculations) and how they are interrelated is really interesting for those, like me, that are used to the world of software, so far away from the physical world.

  4. Some of those copies really are amazingly good. There's a forum dedicated to fake-busting, and even they have been amazed by some of them.

    I don't know if there's a real point to owning even *one* watch these days, since timekeeping mechanisms are so ubiquitous. But then again there's no real point to owning a printed book, or framed photo, for that matter, yet I like books and photos too.

    A big part of the fascination for me is precisely what you say—they're mechanical computers that you can understand simply by looking closely at the pieces and how they fit together. Computers are basically magic. I doubt there's any single human alive who can confidently say she understands everything about a computer, from the detailed workings of a microprosessor and related microelectronics, the micromechanical magic that makes a disk platter run, right up to the high-level API's that rendered this web page.