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Classic watches, watchmaking, antique tools, history, vintage ephemera and more!

Learn about mechanical timepieces and how they work, the history of the American watch industry and especially all about the Elgin National Watch Company! Check back for new content daily.

Although this is technically a blog, the content is not generally in a time-based sequence. You can find interesting items throughout. Down the page some is an alphabetical word cloud of keywords used here. A great way to dig in is to look through those topics and click anything you find interesting. You'll see all the relevant content.

Here are a few of my favorites!

There are some large images on some posts, so that might impact your load times, bit I think you will find it worth the wait. Thanks for visiting!

Perspiring Hands

From The American Horologist magazine, January 1942

Perspiring Hands
By L. C. McALLISTER

In your November issue "Information Please", J. J. asks, "Can you advise what to do for hands that perspire ?"


For twenty years I have had this same condition, until about a year a,go. It is a nervous condition, caused by constipation from constant bench work.


I studied a book written by Dr. Munroe of the Placid Lake, N. Y. Health Club "Man Alive You're Half Dead." A book of the month. I recommend that J. J. send two dollars for this book. He will learn more about eating habits and how to really correct his trouble, than any diet given by general practitioners. If he will do this, I know it will solve his problem.


Elgin Class Visits Westclox, 1938

I was sent these two photos by a gentleman whose father is show here. These pictures show a class of the Elgin watchmakers' College visiting the Westclox "Big Ben" factory in Peru, IL, in 1938.





My Grandfather spoke of taking the same field trip in 1936.

What Is a Safety Pinion?

The amount of potential energy in the coiled mainspring of a watch, particularly a large pocketwatch, is enormous. If the spring should break, the barrel containing the spring may turn with great velocity in the opposite direction of its usual motion. This would be almost certain to damage the train of the watch in any number of ways.

Many vintage American watches include the words "Safety Pinion" or "Safety Barrel" on the movement. The safety pinion refers to a pinion on the center shaft of the watch, which engages the mainspring barrel, and which is fitted to the center shaft with course threads. These threads are usually "left handed" meaning they tighten in the opposite direction of a usual screw. By being threaded in this way, the normal force of the wound watch holds the pinion tight and this drives the watch. But if the mainspring barrel moves the other way, the pinion is unscrewed. It will thus move rapidly down the shaft and disengage from the teeth of the mainspring barrel, saving the watch from damage.

The safety pinion is an American invention patented in 1857.



The Sound of a Watch

I was thinking of writing a post here about the sound a typical watch makes; the "ticking" sound. The fact is that this is the sound of the lever escapement, which virtually all watches made after 1900 or so have (other escapements make a notably different sound, which is a whole other topic).

The ticking of a lever escapement is actually a repeating cycle of five separate impacts in the mechanism. I won't go into a lot of detail though, as there is nothing new under the sun. This blog entry sums it all up nicely:

http://montresuisses.blogspot.com/2006/04/swiss-lever-escapements-generate-five.html

Elgin Watch Part Numbers

I have posted a listing of Elgin part numbers, here:

http://www.rdrop.com/~jsexton/watches/partNumbers1.html

These are the "part type" numbers, not the re-order or factory numbers. For example number 3 is "Arbor, Winding" and number 198C is "Screw, Balance Bridge".

Hopefully others will find this information useful.

Hamilton 4992B Navigation Timer

Here's an interesting piece. This is a WWII era Hamilton 4992B, 16 size, 22 jewels (note the extra jewel for the seconds pivot). It is very similar to Hamilton railroad pocketwatch models, but features a center second hand and a 24 hour dial.
The hour wheel on this watch is geared such that the hour hand goes completely around once every 24 hours rather than the usual 12 hours. The watch also include a mechanism to stop the balance when the watch stem is in setting position to allow synchronization to the second.

Creating a New Balance Staff

http://watchmakingblog.com/2009/02/06/a-balance-staff/

J. Peter offers a nice run-down on creating a replacement balance staff over on his blog, watchmakingblog.com. It's worth a look - very good photography...

Why Do Watches Have Jewels?

Why Do Watches Have Jewels? Is there a relationship between the jewel count of a vintage pocketwatch and its quality?

Vintage watches are completely mechanical devices with a lot of moving parts. Minimizing friction is critical in their design. Fairly early in watchmaking it was discovered that the combination of a sapphire or ruby and hardened steel make an extremely long-lived bearing. Garnets and diamonds are also used, but mostly for show. When methods of making synthetic jewels in a small doughnut shape were invented, around 1900, they became universal in watches. Jewels are also used as pallet stones in the escapement, where again their extreme hardness lets them hold the correct shape indefinitely. 

In early watches jewels are also used a "caps" over pivot bearings to hold oil in place and to keep dirt out. Generally, cap and cap-less pivot jewels are the only ones that can be seen on a watch movement, without disassembly.

In theory, a watch using more jeweled bearings could be more precise. A manufactured jewel will have a precise shape to very high tolerance. It can be made to hold oil in place and to greatly reduce friction. The idea that the use of jewels, more jewels, equates to higher quality was promoted by 20th century watch companies. The relationship is valid to an extent, but is clearly exaggerated. Synthetic sapphires and rubies are quite inexpensive to make, and so it's not unusual to see vintage watches with extraneous jewels that are really quite pointless.

Jewels have a disadvantage in that, like hardened steel, their hardness also leads to brittleness. They do not wear down like a soft metal, but they crack and break, failing catastrophically. On the other hand, it is simple to make a watch in such a way that jewels are easily replaced. But in general, a higher jeweled mechanism is likely to be less durable.

How are jewels for watches made? Learn more here!

Cleaning


From Horology magazine, July 1938

CLEANING


The use of the cleaning machine has definitely become a part of the routine in most horological shops and no one whu has experienced the ease of machine cleaning is likely to return to the old method.

Investigation has shown, however, that in many instances horologists have failed to derive the advantages which these machines offer.

Although it is an established fact that it is the time element and not the cost of cleaning fluids which concerns repairers, many have gained the impression that they may use cleaning and rinsing solutions indefinitely without replacement and still get good results. They have evidently forgotten how often they had to change their gasoline and alcohol baths when they practiced the hand cleaning method.

One therefore hears of complaints and difficulties which when analyzed are found to be due only to negligence.

Explosive cleaning solutions are always more or less dangerous, even when used with just a brush. To use such fluids in a machine may eventually lead to serious consequences. As expensive as the regularly marketed solutions may be, in the long run they are probably cheaper than many of the home made mixtures.

Regardless of what solutions are used, it must be observed that no article will come out perfectly clean if it is given its last rinse in a dirty solution. It is likewise futile to expect the heater of a machine to dry an oil coated plate without leaving a film. Watch cleaning does not consist entirely of making the plates and wheels appear bright and free from lint or dust. As a matter of fact, a watch may be assembled in such a condition and be a complete failure from the standpoint of durability.

Usually the difficulties begin or at least occur more often after the original quantity of cleaning solution, which came with the machine when it was purchased, has been exhausted. The horologist suddenly decides that the solution recommended by the manufacturer of his machine is too costly and that a friend of his is getting just as good results with cheaper solutions or with solutions which he makes up himself by adding one part of this with so many parts of that. Of course, there could be no criticism of such action if it were based on the results of a systematic investigation. But, there have come to light cases in which, as the result of an indiscriminate change, horologists have used two successive rinses which would not mix.

One of the important things to observe in getting good results is to see that the various cleaning fluids do not contaminate each other. It should be remembered that in the process of removing gummed up oil, as well as oil in the liquid state, from the barrel and mainspring, it is transferred to the cleaning solution and to a lesser degree to the rinsing solution.

The first solution, which is usually dark in color, gradually gets filled with oily matter, thereby increasing the contamination of the rinsing fluid each time the machine is used. This can be greatly minimized by throwing of the excess solution from the basket before transferring . it to the next jar of fluid. Under no circumstances should a dripping basket be transferred from one solution to the next.  The last rinse, on which the quality of a job depends so much, must at all times be chemically free from impurities. As soon as it begins to show a change of color it should be discarded or used as an intermediate solution.


Another important point to be remembered is the fact that there seems to be no single solution which will at the same time completely remove the tarnish from a silvered movement and dissolve the gummed oil. There is no harm in dipping such watch parts into a cvanide solution to remove the tarnish. The job can then be completed in the watch cleaning machine in the usual manner. And when an exceptionally gummed up watch is encountered it is not at all out of place to give it a brushing in a benzine bath before placing it in the basket of the machine. This will shorten the time it must be kept in the first solution, besides keeping the solution cleaner.


The matter of preventing a hairspring from getting tangled is also readily solved.  In spite of the fact that the ease with which a hairspring may be removed has been repeatedly demonstrated, which by the way, enables one to check the poise of the balance, many insist on cleaning the balance and spring as a unit. This can be safely done only if placed in a small compartment in the center of the basket so that the centrifugal force will not cause the heavy stud to fly out and damage the spring. It is also important that the mesh or screen of the basket be fine enough to prevent the stud from entering one of the openings. If the stud gets through one of them and centrifugal force draws the spring away it will surely be damaged.

The temptation to leave certain parts undisturbed while cleaning seems irresistible to many. It has already been pointed out in these columns that some loose pieces which allow free circulation of the cleaning fluid may sometimes be left on a plate, but it is hopeless to attempt to clean jewels without removing the endstones or a complete barrel with the spring inside.

In conclusion, one must bear in mind that the qualities of any oil depend upon the surface to which it is applied. Even the slightest trace of foreign matter is sufficient to turn it into a gummy substance or draw it away. This is why the same oil in a given watch may stand up beautifully on some bearings and go bad on others. 

How To Open A Pocketwatch Case

There are several types of common pocketwatch cases. It is important to understand which type you're dealing with. Below are basic instruction for opening cases that are:
  • Threaded front and back
  • Hinged front and back
  • Swing-out
  • Snap-on front and back
There are a few other variations of these, but those are rare.

Threaded Front and Back

Many pocketwatch cases have screw-on bezels and backs. This type is case it composed of three main parts; the back, the bezel (the metal ring holder the crystal) and the middle part of the case where the watch movement is held, and to which the stem is attached. This type of case will have no hinges and thin cracks between the middle, the front and the back that can be seen or felt all the way around. Under careful examination, no lip or short widening of the gap at any point will seen.

To open a screw-on back, hold the watch dial-side facing down in the palm of your left hand (reverse if you are left-handed). Hold the stem of the watch with your left thumb. Turn the back counter-clockwise using the palm of the other hand. It is important not to press down too hard on the watch body as this will only make the back cover tighter against the case and thus harder to remove. The counter-clockwise pressure is what will open the case.

This type of case is most common on 16 and 18 size watches.

Snap-on Front and Back

This type of case is built on three parts, like a threaded case. Also like a threaded case, the edges of the parts can be observed around the from the an back where those parts join to the middle. But these cases have a lip or a short wide are in the gap, used to pry off the case parts. Snap on front and back parts are not threaded but instead snap-on to the middle part. The front and back are removed using a watch case opener, inserted at the provided spot. A case opener is similar to a pocket knife - however, never use an actual knife to open a watch case as it is dangerous.

Note that the parts of these cases frequently assemble in a specific orientation. In these cases, a notch of pin can be found on one part with a corresponding slot or hole in the other part. These must line up to snap the parts together.

This type of case is found on 16s and is most common on 12 and smaller size watches.





Swing-Out Cases



This type of case has a threaded (more common) or snap-on front (bezel) and no gap for a back part. With this type of case the front can be removed, and the watch movement "swings out" on a hinge, usually at the top of the movement. The body of the case is otherwise a single part. These cases sometimes require a case opener to left the movement out. Also, if the stem pulls out the setting position (even if it is a lever-set watch) this is required to swing the movement out. It is important to note that not all crowns snap out. The snapping of a crown in and out is a function of the case, not the watch, on early American timepieces. And not all cases feature a snap out crown. Don't just tug on it.

These types of cases are probably the trickiest to open, and to close again. They are particularly common on 18 size watches, as they were once a requirement of some railroad grade specifications.

There are hunting cases (described below) that are swing-outs too, as pictured here.

Swing out cases are sometimes referred to as "basket cases" in older watch literature. I suspect that the more modern meaning of this phrase caused it to fall out of use for watch cases though.

Hinged front and back

This type of case has a visible hinge for both the front and the back. They will typically be a lip for opening these sections also. The swing out hunting case above has a hinged back.


A case opener may be required to open a hinged cases. 

Also, these cases will frequently have a third hinged cover inside the back cover. This is a "dust cover" provided so that the back can be opened, for winding a key-wind watch for example, without exposing the movement. Sometimes these are called "triple hinge" cases. The dust cover may have a hole positioned to allow winding with a key. These cases are frequently seen with 18 size movements, particularly key-set/key-wind movements, and also with 6 size and smaller watches.

Hunting Cases

Hunting, or hunter, cases have lid over the front. The lid is opened by pressing down on the crown. Inside this cover is almost always a snap-on bezel. The back of a hunting case may be any of the above types. It is important when closing a hunting case, to press down on the crown, close the front, and then release the crown. "Snapping" the cover over the catch that normally holds it closed will quickly wear down the catch, and the cover will then not stay closed.

Other Considerations

Not all watch cases have crowns that snap out. And just because a watch is lever-set, does not mean that the crown does not snap out. Watch case companies made cases both ways and a case with a snap out crown will work fine with a lever set watch that doesn't need it.

Some cases, particularly older ones, and European ones, have a set screw in the side of the neck. The stem has a shoulder inside and the screw is holding the stem in. On one of these, the crown does not snap out. Slightly loosening the screw and removing the stem is usually required to get the movement. These are tricky to handle as the screw is usually a very soft metal like gold or silver and is often already damaged.


There are other types of cases too, of more obscure designs. Just one example that I have seen a few times is similar to a swing out case, but the neck of the case is part of the ring holding the movement.

If it is not clear how your watch opens, don't force anything. It is very easy to damage the case or the movement, or both. I have seen many cases with threaded backs hopelessly ruined as a result of being pried on with a knife. 

Take the watch to a good jeweler, and not just a chain store at a mall, and they should be able to open the watch.

Some cases are stuck. They can be remarkably difficult. If you have one of these, again, get the watch to someone with experience. I'd be happy to try to help. Contact me at jsexton@elgintime.com 

Serial Numbers 

With your case open, you will be able to see the movement's serial number. For American watches, the number can usually tell you a little more about the piece.  Find out about your Elgin watch by looking up the serial number here.

Want to learn more about vintage pocketwatches?  Why not join our Vintage Watches community!

Preparation of Steel to Make a Balance Staff

From The American Horologist magazine, January 1942

Preparation of Steel to Make a Balance Staff

1. Hardening Steel - Select a suitable piece of soft drill rod or stub steel for the job in hand. Wrap binding wire five or six times around it and leave about a four or five inch length of wire to hold in fingers. Cover with soap and heat to a cherry-red color or slightly more. Plunge in cold water, end first. It should now be white in color. Clean off the scaling to a polish with emery cloth or sticks.


2. Annelling Steel - To annel use a material lid or box and roll the steel back and forth watching the color very carefully. When it becomes a dark blue with a little tinge of purple, drop it into water or benzine to stop further annelling.


3. VERY IMPORTANT - To check on No. 1 and No. 2 to be sure steel is suitable for staff - Now turn a conical pivot on one end with the graver auot a .14 or .15 m/m pivot. Using pivot straightening tweezers, bend the pivot off center, now straighten. Bend it again and straighten. Now bend it a third time and at the next try at straightening it should break off. If the pivot breaks on the first or second attempt clean the blue off again and reblue it to a dark blue and try again to bend and straighten.  Steel prepared as above will be soft enough to turn nicely, hard enough to polish well, and hard enough to give good service in the watch.


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