Zen And The Art Of Wristwatch Maintenance: The Benefits Of Learning To Service Your Own Watch
In an article published by Quill & Pad in 2015 – Here’s Why You Should Learn To Service Your Own Watch– fellow contributor Joshua Munchow incurred the wrath of watchmakers and haute horlogerie enthusiasts alike by suggesting that you can learn to service your own watch if you set your mind to it, thereby acquiring a fascinating new life skill and saving yourself a fortune in watchmakers’ fees at the same time.
A few lengthy, irate rants were left in the comments section, pointing out the years of study it takes to learn watchmaking to the level required to service a watch; others mentioned the substantial investment required to acquire the necessary tools and the fact that in an entry assessment held by Patek Philippe in New York, only six out of 300 applicants were considered to have the skills and temperament required to become what the company deems to be a competent watchmaker.
Joshua’s fatal error, if I may use that expression, was to include the words “tinkering” and “garage” in the same sentence as “your late-model IWC.”
Many of these commenters appeared to have given up reading the article halfway through and reached for their favorite green-ink ballpoint pen in a fit of horological apoplexy, apparently missing the various caveats and recommendations with which Joshua ended the article.
The truth is out there, and it is somewhat more nuanced: using the automobile analogy utilized by both Joshua Munchow and his critics, there is a world of a difference between servicing a 1960s Mini, a 1990s Ford Mondeo, and a Tesla.
With a bit of effort, research and a few suitable tools, a reasonably competent inveterate tinkerer who has learned to service his vintage Mini could probably do a reasonable job of servicing a Ford Mondeo. But he is likely to have no idea of what is going on under the hood of a Tesla.
Similarly, with the correct tools, and provided none of the parts are missing or damaged, hobbyists can learn to disassemble, clean, oil, and reassemble a 100-year old non-running pocket watch and get it going.
From there they can graduate to early wristwatches (which share the same movement architecture as pocket watches) and then move on to basic pin pallet movements such as a 1960s Oris – which achieved chronometer certification with pin pallet movements, much to the irritation of francophone Switzerland’s finest – before eventually tackling “modern” wristwatch movements such as the ETA 2391 or AS 1940, which can often be had under other names on eBay for as little as $20.
But they would likely have no idea what to do with the insides of an oil-filled Ressence, for example (other than changing the oil at 12-month intervals). The passionate amateur might as well try to service an Apple watch.
Similarly, recent-model Rolexes and Omegas contain state-of-the-art parts such as silicon hairsprings, free-sprung balance wheels, and co-axial escapements that are strictly off-limits to the uninitiated, i.e., anyone not trained to handle these parts correctly by the brands themselves.
But Joshua succinctly explained the philosophy behind his approach:
“. . . in all honesty, most watches aren’t anything special, really, and treating them as such is kind of a waste of time and a lost opportunity to really own and understand your own possessions.”
That is a reasonable and logical statement, but one that some in the watch industry might find it hard to accept. However if I ever have grandchildren and they ask me what I did during the Great Lockdown of 2020, I shall proudly tell them that I learnt how to service a watch.
Where do you begin?
In Tobias Hill’s 2002 novel The Love of Stones, in mid-nineteenth century Baghdad the main character Daniel Levy is given a rusty, gummed up pocket watch signed “Rundell & Bridge, London” on the dial, which he dismantles and painstakingly restores to working order.
To a modern watchmaker this may seem somewhat improbable given the distinct absence of ultrasound cleaning machines, overpriced Moebius oils, and Bergeon screwdrivers in nineteenth-century Baghdad. But Levy was a lapidary and had the skills and the inventiveness to improvise what he needed to get the job done. The watch subsequently becomes a central feature of the plot and eventually outlasts the company that made it (Rundell and Bridge was, both in the novel and in reality, the jeweler that made Queen Victoria’s crown).
My journey into what some call “watch fettling” (it even has an eponymous website) began with a case of cat-killing curiosity: one of the subdial hands on a Hong Kong-made LIP watch (which I had gotten for free with a subscription to Le Figaro Weekend Edition) had come loose and eventually fallen through the “open heart” visible balance wheel and into the movement, bringing it to a halt.
I figured that if I could just “dismantle the movement a little bit” I might be able to fish out the lost hand. The movement had always run several minutes fast per day anyway.
This was where I learned the first rule of watchmaking: always release the power from the mainspring before dismantling anything. Of course, as soon as I unscrewed the wheel bridge the whole thing blew up in my face – as you can see in the photo below.
But I was not going to admit defeat on this one. A quick internet search revealed that the movement was a Shanghai 2L27, and I was able to source an entire new movement for around $30 from a parts supplier in Canada.
It was thus that I learned to remove the hands, dial, and winding stem from the old movement and install them on the new movement. In all, the project took about two years, being abandoned on several occasions as I lost one of the new subdial hands and broke the second hand.
Eventually, while working on other worthless watches, I found replacement hands that fit and mastered the art of setting the hands correctly so that they don’t bump into each other. The watch is now running perfectly (unlike the original, the replacement movement keeps good time).
“Making” my own watch
Inspired by this display of my own technical wizardry, my next step was to make (by which I mean assemble) my own watch. A €5 brocante find consisting of a rather tacky 1980s “sports” watch turned out to contain a perfect running Miyota 8215, the excellent, widely available workhorse automatic movement by Citizen used worldwide by many brands in low- to mid-priced watches.
There is a substantial supply of watch cases, dials, and hands compatible with both the Miyota 8215 and the ETA 2824 (the dials come with four feet, you simply snap off the two you don’t need for the movement you have chosen), so I set about making myself an homage to the Tudor Black Bay 58. Partly to see how I felt about its size on my wrist before shelling out for a real one (it looks great, but as I feared it is rather too large for me).
The only really tricky thing in this process is cutting the winding stem to the correct length to fit the watch case once the crown is attached.
Now, there is normally no room in an august horological publication such as Quill & Pad for even a mention of “homage watches,” let alone a photo of one, but like the leg-uncrossing scene in Basic Instinct, it’s essential to the plot.
Servicing 101: pocket watches
The path into mechanical watchmaking is very much facilitated by the fact that, historically speaking, mechanical watches were plentiful and built to last. During the nineteenth century, anonymous, key-wound pocket watches were produced in England, France, Switzerland, and the USA in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions), and any junk and antique fairs you attend are likely to have several of these on offer for $30 or less.
The ubiquitous timepieces are the would-be watchmaker’s starting point, as each wheel in the movement train sits under its own bridge, making reassembly after cleaning relatively straightforward. Finding one of these watches with its hairspring intact is fairly unusual, but at this stage the beginner’s task is essentially learning how to remove the movement from the case, remove dial and hands, disassemble and clean the movement, and reassemble it so that the wheels run freely. This in itself is immensely satisfying.
The next step is to find a pocket watch with a plate bridge that covers most or all of the train wheels: getting all the wheels in their respective correct positions so that the top plate can be screwed down is one of the more challenging tasks in reassembling a watch, comparable to the old circus trick of spinning plates on sticks, but in miniature.
So, apart from the substantial cost savings, why should you learn to service watches?
First, as Joshua Munchow points out, it brings you into a far closer relationship with objects that you may already prize greatly but do not have the sort of appreciation that can only be gained by opening them up and working on them.
Even if (as indeed you should) you reserve the servicing of your Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet for a qualified high priest of horology, there are numerous other brands, some of which may feature in your collection, that are really quite approachable from a fettling point of view.
I am presently focusing on the various Seiko movements such as the fiddly and ultimately unreliable 4205 (too many plastic parts) and the workhorse 7S26, and have just serviced an old Seiko 5 with a solid automatic 7009 day-date movement – all with a view to eventually servicing my prized 1976 blue-dial Seiko 7025 (last serviced in 1994) and my SKX013.
Second, and perhaps more important in the scheme of things, there is the personal impact of learning this set of disciplines.
I refer in the title of this article to the “Zen of watch maintenance” partly as a nod to Robert Pirsig’s 1974 hit novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints focused on being “in the moment”) and those who seek to know details, understand inner workings, and master mechanics.
But the title also refers to the characteristics that learning to service watches has forced me to acquire, which, as anyone who knows me will tell you, are not obviously in my nature.
- Patience: it takes time; time to acquire the necessary techniques and knowledge, and each individual project requires its own time, which may extend to months or years.
- Thoroughness: it all has to be done properly, from mainspring through to balance wheel; sooner or later, any weak link in the chain will bring the machine to a halt.
- Caution: if it can go wrong it probably will, so forward planning and precautions are required for each step.
- Systematic approach: by nature I usually try to find the quickest and least effortful way to do something, but there are no shortcuts in watchmaking.
- Stoicism in the face of adversity: as is well known, dealing with failure is an essential step in the path to adulthood. You will encounter failure, disappointment, frustration, and loss (mainly of very small screws and springs) on your watchmaking journey.
It is too soon to say whether these newly learnt habits are having a positive knock-on effect on other areas of my life, but there is a third, very important benefit: learning new skills at any age prevents the brain from aging, even more so where motor skills are concerned.
Much to my surprise (I have never even repaired a flat tire on a bicycle, let alone fixed my car), and in spite of my advanced years (58 this week), I have recently developed the motor skills required to handle very small parts – “screws barely visible to the naked eye” as one of Joshua Munchow’s detractors put it.
Put it this way: for as long as I continue to practice watchmaking, if ever I develop the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease I will be the first to know about it.
Indeed, my usual watchmaker in Bordeaux, who gets to service my more precious watches (and patiently clears up my watchmaking cockups in return), suffered a stroke last year. Having seen the catastrophic effect of stroke on a family member in the recent past, I did not expect him to be able to ever resume his profession.
Nevertheless, six months later he reopened his workshop and was working gleefully on a Patek Philippe and a Breguet when I last visited. I can’t help thinking that it may have been the challenging and detailed nature of his work that enabled him to make a full recovery where others of his (our) age might not have done so. Last, but not least of all these reasons for getting into the Zen of watchmaking: the Dalai Lama sevices his own watches. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
So where am I now with all this? I still have a lot to learn and some rather costly tools to acquire. I need to learn how to disassemble a balance wheel and replace the hairspring and/or balance wheel shaft as these are common causes of non-running watches.
I also have to master the art of cleaning or replacing and fitting mainsprings. They are not as delicate as hairsprings but do require specific tools to avoid damage. There is no point trying to regulate a watch if it isn’t getting adequate and constant drive from the mainspring.
However, I do have some encouraging repair and restoration achievements under my belt – such as a Yema Sous Marine Automatique with the excellent France Ebauche FE 3611 (same as the cult Yema Superman of the 1970s) and this 1960s LIP Dauphine with a fine German Durowe movement, both of which were received in non-running state but are now ticking away at a steady +4/-5 seconds per day with a beat error of 0.1ms. This is a reward in itself.
To sum up, servicing, repairing, and restoring watches is one of the most rewarding activities you can get involved in and the information required to master most of the core skills is available in print and online. But one essential skill sometimes learned the hard way is knowing when NOT to start poking around with your screwdriver.
Caveat fabricator horologii . . .