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Workshop: Basic Care Of Pocket Watches

I’ve been messing with pocket watches for about 6 years now and managed to fix a few. Some defeat me and there’s a simple reason; old age. The watch that is, not me.

You see pocket watches built back in the 1880-1920 period are genuine antiques and frankly, many of them were not built to last over a century. Owners skimp on servicing, the cases are hacked open with kitchen knives and cruder tools and dust, skin and hair sneaks in too. That often results in metal touching metal and the inevitable grinding paste effect that anyone who has stripped a BSA Bantam engine will be familiar with.

Later Walthams, with the decorative Riverside movements are far more reliable. Better built than Travelers.

I digress. Here are some tips for those who have a vintage Waltham, Elgin, Thomas Russell, Omega or Lancashire Pocket Watch, and wish to keep it going.

  1. Don’t adjust the timekeeping using the A/R lever. It’s tempting to press a screwdriver in and waggle it this way or that to try and compensate for poor running. But the problem is unlilely to be that simple and there is a danger of pulling the hairspring. Bang goes the timekeeping completely and most likely, the watch will stop after a few seconds of running.
  2. Don’t oil or lubricate it, unless you have practised on other watches and use the correct tools and watch oil. Don’t drip lighter fluid in there either. It might help a sticky balance assembly, but it’s no substitute for a proper service.
  3. Try not to wind the watch fully. You’re putting a 100% load on something that might not have been replaced since WW2, which was the last time the mainspring was replaced. It’s possible that it’s still using the original mainspring. So wind it ten turns, maybe eight – be kind to the old girl. When you feel a fair bit of resistance, then stop winding.
  4. Don’t set the correct time by winding the hands backwards. It is just more load on ageing parts. Always advance the hands to set the time.
  5. Does it have a winding key? Then there’s a fusee chain inside, wich if you imagine a mini bicycle chain, wrapped around a walnut whip, gives you a good idea of how it works. It is very delicate and most likely has stretched over 50-100 years. There are no factories in China making fusee chains for British or American pocket watches from the 1890s, so take care when winding it.
  6. Top winders are more durable, as this is late Victorian tech, so made with more precision as machine tool manufacturing advanced. Any excess clicking, resistance or `crunching’ is a bad sign. Don’t wind it, don’t try to fix it with WD40.
  7. If your old Waltham runs for 15-18 hours it’s doing well. Don’t expect it to run for a full day, or kep the right time. Many lost 1-2mins a day when they were new, so losing 5 mins a century later is acceptable. Be kind when you wind!

If you have a pocket watch problem then email me at; thenorthernwatchco@outlook.com and maybe I can help. Or it may need the A Team. Estimates and sympathy are free!

Basic Clean Up on a Regency Vintage Swiss Watch

Is it worth servicing older watches made by the lesser known Swiss brands? That is a question that every jeweller, watch trader and antique dealer should ask themselves, because generally the answer is a firm No. Given that a decent watchmaker will charge about £150 as a minimum for a stripdown of a mechanical movement, plus cleaning, oiling and re-assembly then you’re looking at spending three times the resale value of an old Montine, Regency, Lucerne, Hudson, Precimax, Superoma etc.

So what is the solution when you buy a 60s/70s watch on ebay, Gumtree or at a watch fair and then find it starts/stops, or simply runs for a few seconds and then freezes? Well quite often all that watch needs is a basic clean, bit of an overnight soak for the movement perhaps and some TLC with an oiler to get it running again. It may not run a full 30 hours and keep time to within 1 minute, but you will have a running watch to wear and enjoy. Or sell on/swap if you’re a budget level collector.

OK then, here’s a little run through the typical problems with this non-ticking, fully wound-up, Regency watch, and how I got it running again;

First off, remove the dreadful, dirt-encrusted expander bracelet and bin it. Don’t think you can pick the skin and filth out from the links, or toothbrush it. Just not worth it. Buy a basic leather strap from ebay for £5 instead.

regency mech 2 used ebay watch

Two, remove most of the dirt around the caseback before opening the case. You don’t want more crud falling in. Note that there is hair around the winding crown and stem by the way.

Depress the release button and carefully remove the stem. Get this in a chemical bath to loosen the decades of grime.

Having taken some movement photos, I image matched the pics on google to find out which movement with the ETA1080 being the most similar looking. Good news. Next step, use the crystal grabber to remove the scratched glass, then tease off the hands using the correct tools and the dial protector.

regency mech hair in ebay watch
Yes, old wrist hair wrapped around the stem will not do your vintage watch any damn good at all.

Store the hands carefully in a plastic tray, and add the two movement holding screws in another compartment. Prise off the bezel and pop the movement forward like a pocket watch. This was a difficult job, as dirt had seized the bezel on tight. I used some ether and a brush to loosen it – protecting the dial from the excess ether by the way – then dribbled some watch oil onto a super thin screwdriver to work my way into the tiny gap.

Next remove the balance cock and hairspring, and put this delicate part in a separate chemical bath away from the main movement. Why you ask? The reason I do that is my watch repair tutor, Ernie, told me years ago that when you bathe the entire movement bits of crud go all over the show and some can stick to the hairspring. If the hairspring’s coils stick together then there’s a good chance the watch will not run properly, so it is worth cleaning it separately.

Be ultra careful with the hairspring, so easy to twist or break it free from the screw-in pin, and while the balance bridge is out clean the bottom jewel with a blower, once it has had a nice overnight soak in the bath.

regency mech stem crown watch
Years of neglect, not easy to remove.

Now add a tiny smidge of oil to the pallet stones, and to the end jewel on the base plate before putting the balance back in. If you can reach in to place a little oil between the hour wheel and the back of the dial, plus lube any exposed, non jewel staffs, then it is worth doing. Don’t go mad with oil, less is more.

Use the blower gently on the hairspring before re-assembly. Inspect all the parts and the movement carefully with your magnifying glass or loupe. Take your time, it is easy to damage these parts and as this is where the watch has the LEAST power, and so it is where it requires the most attention to ensure all is clean, dust-free, lightly lubed and in perfect symmetry.

Clean the stem and crown and place a dab of oil on the stem, before sliding that back in. Now check the movement winds before doing anything else. Does the hairspring move side-to-side with a nice beat? If there’s a problem, it’s time to strip it right down, or bin the watch in the parts drawer. Assuming all feels fine, remove the stem again, put the movement back in the watch case and screw down the two retaining screws. Clamp the movement securely while you do all this.

OK, refit the bezel, now that it’s been cleaned up. Should press on, you may need a polybag and a caseback press to align it and press it on properly. Take your time to make sure all is 100% straight before screwing down the caseback press and applying pressure. The polythene bag protects the dial a bit if the thing slips. Sometimes.

Now you can fit the hands again. Generally the hour hand needs the most pressure, but you’ll know everything is sitting well if the second hand goes on the cannon pinion nicely. Turn the movement upside down to make sure the hands stay on OK. If not, keep trying. Then test the hands clear each other by pulling the crown out and setting the time.

regency mech movt watch
Very sturdy ETA movement- they built them to last in the 50s/60s.

Use the blower on the dial, maybe a soft brush to get rid of dust. Don’t try to clean the dial using any solvents. It will strip the paint. Replace the caseback and measure your old crystal. This Regency had a 308 fitted and I didn’t have one in my spares stock, but I used extra pressure on a 320 and made it fit on. Occasionally that causes a crack and goodbye crystal, but this Regency, like many 60s/70s watches has  shallow bezel, so an oversized crystal stays in under extra tension. I went for a high dome too – may as well with low value watches. Just my preference.

regency mech new crystal strap watch
Some gold plate loss, discoloured crown too. But still looks fairly good with a new 320 sized crystal squeezed on board.

Now clean the holes in the lugs with a cocktail stick, then fit new pins plus a strap. Voila, you have a half decent vintage watch, which when fully wound, ran for 26 hours on the bench. Result. On the down side, this all took about two hours of work, plus overnight chemical baths. It is a fair bit of work for something that still might NOT cure all the ills within a 50 year old watch, but altogether more affordable.

So, total parts budget? £5 strap and a £1 crystal – only because I bought a joblot of 50 crystals for £45 a few years back. Labour costs? Well if I was charging a trade price that would be £30 for 2 hours. That’s still a total of £36, which is roughly the resale value of the watch at an antique fair, so like many things classic and vintage, you do this work for love, not money!