Monday, March 30, 2015

Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 4, Swing-out Cases

Here in part 4 of this series on tips for buying a first pocketwatch, we take a look at cases again, and case types. Mainly, it is worth mentioning swing-out cases.

There are many different designs of watch cases. But since we have focused here on American makes, that tends to narrow it down. Most watch cases are a type that opens at the front and the back, or they are swing-out cases.

Cases having a front and back that open are built in three sections; a middle ring that holds the movement and the stem, a solid back, and a front that carries the bezel and the crystal. On these cases the front and back parts may attach to the midsection in a variety of ways. Many are threaded, some snap on, and some are hinged to the middle ring. These may appear in any combination. Hunter cases are often this type, with the additional complication of the hinged front cover.

It is important to know what sort of case you have before trying to open it.

As much as opening the case all the time is not recommended (keep the dust out!), we know that watch owners are going to want the show off the movement every chance they get.  So, when shopping for a watch, an important thing to understand is the difference between the three-piece cases and swing-out cases, also sometimes called tip-out cases, mainly because swing-out cases are harder to open.

Swing-out cases have no removable back. Under close examination, one will find that there is no gap or seam around the case revealing that the back is a separate part. Only the front is removable on a typical swing-out case. And removing the front reveals a hinged loop that can be pulled and lifted from the bottom of the case. The movement is carried in this loop.

On most American pocketwatches, the winding arbor is part of the case and the female part is in the movement. So in order to lift the movement it is usually necessary to give the stem clearance by snapping out the crown. Even then it can be tricky. But the winding arbor will often have a little play and can be wiggled and turned to get the movement out. Swinging the movement back in and getting the arbor in place can be similarly tricky.

Swing-out cases have the advantage of being sturdier, having fewer parts with the one-piece body, and of being better at keeping out dust, having just the one seam, for the front. Many railroad watch specifications called for swing-out cases.

In the earlier parts of this series we arrived at a general recommendation of 12 or 16 size open-face Elgin watches as being a good choice for a first pocketwatch. The majority of these are found in some form or other of a three-piece case. Swing-out cases are slightly more common with 18 size movements.

It is worth mentioning that there are many other types of cases that open in different ways, including some creative and unique designs. But these are all on the rare side in watches from the early American market.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 3, Setting Mechanisms

First, to recap part 1 and part 2 of this series on getting started buying a pocketwatch, I have already narrowed down a recommendation of 12, or perhaps 16, size Elgin watches, in open-face cases. Of course one may have good reasons not to go in that direction, but at least the various trade offs are on the table.

Next, there are many, many issues of terminology and technology that arise in browsing available watches. But one very important one to know right from the beginning is the difference between the most common styles of setting/winding mechanisms.

Key Wind and Set

Early American watches are key wind and/or key set. These watches require a special watch key. The key has a square hole in the end that fits over a winding arbor, or setting arbor, or both, on the watch. The winding arbor is usually at the back of the watch, offset from the center. The setting ardor is either in the middle of the back, or in the center of the hands in the front.

Keys can be purchased from suppliers of watch accessories in standardized sizes designated by a number. Three keys numbered three, four and five will cover most larger American pocketwatches. Smaller ladies watches will call for higher number (smaller) keys.

Stem Wind and Set

Stem set mechanisms are a later invention. This is the style of watch we are most familiar with today. To wind the watch, one turns the crown. To set the watch one snaps the crown outward and then turns, snapping the crown back in when the time is set correctly.

Both stem set and lever set watches are said to have a keyless works. The keyless works, specifically, refers specifically to these watch's winding/setting sub-mechanisms.

Lever Set

Lever set watches are not put in setting mode by popping up the crown. Instead there is a lever, generally under the edge of the dial. Pulling out the level engages setting mode, changing the function of the crown from winding to setting. Accessing the setting lever requires removing the front bezel.

All earlier railroad grade specifications calls for lever-set mechanisms. It was considered safer, less likely to accidentally change the time, than other styles.


For a first time vintage watch buyer, key wind and key set movements may not be the best choice. Someone with just one antique watch, as opposed to a collection, no matter how small, is likely to want to run the watch more. Key set mechanisms which set the hands directly from the front are particularly difficult to use. And there is a great risk of damaging the hands. In addition, both the arbors and the keys wear, creating a need for repair and replacements.

This leaves lever set and stem set movements.

Stem set movements function in a way that is familiar today. However, most vintage American watches are negative setting (as opposed to positive setting). Without dwelling on the details, negative setting watches have the "snap" mechanism in the neck of the case, and have a default mode of setting. By default I mean that the movement is spring loaded to push it to setting. It is held back, in winding mode, by a spring called a sleeve, inside the neck of the case.

Negative setting mechanisms allow the movement and the case to be more or less mix and match. But the disadvantage is that the spring that holds the watch in setting mode, the sleeve, which is really part of the case, tends to wear, weaken and break. When the sleeve is no good, the crown will not stay down and the watch stays in setting mode. Less is an extremely common problem. Replacement parts are around, but getting harder to find. The repair is complicated by the fact that the sleeve and stem are often custom fit, if not custom made, for each particular movement/case combination - especially in older watches.

Lever setting movements do not depend on the case in anyway. In fact, many lever setting watches are found in cases having a sleeve for negative setting. On these, the crown snaps up, but does not do anything. Such a case is designed for either lever or stem set watches.

Lever set watches have a reliable and durable mechanism. However accessing the lever involves removing the front bezel. This exposes the hands and dial to possible damage and dirt, and create and opportunity to drop the front and break the crystal (this happens all the time, believe me). Also, over time even a finger nail creates small chips in the dial edge near the lever, unless one is very, very careful every single time.

So either lever or stem set are fair choices for a first watch. Both have disadvantages to be aware of.

There are many other technical differences and various terminology one will encounter when browsing pocketwatches. But the setting/winding mechanism is an especially important one to understand. There are also other types, not mentioned above, but they are less common, and generally found on European watches.

Elgin Grade 466

The grade 466 is a later Elgin lever-set design, 16 size, and 17 jewels. This example was made about 1921.

An Early Elgin, Grade 69, Part 4

The hand engraving on this very early National Watch Company product is spectacular!

An Early Elgin, Grade 69, Part 3

This Elgin B. W. Raymond movement is the earliest I have seen. It is from the very first production run in 1867. One interest difference from even slightly later grade 69 examples is the shape of the top plate.

The plate's cut out for the mainspring barrel is exceptionally close around the barrel at the outside edge. This prevents the usual assembly procedure from working out. Once the upper plate is in place, the barrel can not be slipped in. The upper plate has to be set with the barrel in place.
Here are some other, later, 18 size Elgin plates for comparison. The first-run plate is in upper middle.

An Early Elgin, Grade 69, Part 2

Serial numbers on Elgin movements appear in a number of places. This movement, number 198, has the number 98 stamped on the barrel cap, under the balance cock, on the dial side of the main plate and under the hour wheel (not shown).