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.
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At first this project seemed straight forward. All the parts are here, nothing is broken.
The movement cleaned up well and ran. Good end-shake and side-shake through-out, good pallet, everything was fine. It timed well on the timing machine also, reading at less than +/- 30 seconds per day at 18,000 BPH (beats per hour).
My last step in watch testing is to run each watch for several days in various orientations; dial up, dial down, hanging, etc. I didn't expect any issues with this watch. But it turned out to be one of my more difficult and puzzling projects.
Finally in desperation, I counted the teeth on the wheels, and the leaves on the pinions.
For a bit of background here, it may be helpful to refer back to this post on counting the train. Watches operate by regulating, slowly releasing at a certain beat rate, a power source through a set of gears. These gears, or wheels, have ratios such that hands attached to the right gears rotate at a rate we recognize in seconds, minutes and hours per day. It isn't magic, it's mechanics.
These are the count values for this movement.
Great Pinion: 10
Great Wheel: 65
3rd Pinion: 8
3rd Wheel: 60
4th Pinion: 8
4th Wheel: 70
Esc Pinion: 8
Esc Wheel: 15
The 4th wheel's revolutions per hour is therefore:
( 18,000 * 8 ) / ( 70 * 14 + 2 ) = 68.57
The 4th wheel is the seconds hand. This should be 60 revolutions per hour, one per minute!
But is gets worse. If we calculate the rate of the center wheel:
(8 * 8 * 68.57 ) / ( 65 * 60 ) = 1.57
At 18,000 BPH, this leaves an erroneous rate of the center wheel, which is to say the minute hand, of 1.57 revolutions per hour. That's +180.4 minutes per 24 hours on the hour and minute hands! But that's only the beginning. The error on the second hand is not relatively the same as that of the minute and hour hands. In other words even if we did awful things to the balance wheel to shift the rate away from 18,000 BPH to the point where the main hands read OK, the seconds hand would go around a bit more than one time per minute.
This watch's train contains incorrect parts.
In fact, it contains more than one incorrect part. The strange thing though is that this watch "ticks" fine - quite well in fact. Because of the geometry of the way gears work, all possible combinations of tooth and pinion counts will not all run smoothly in practice. They have to mesh well. This is why any 18,000 BPH movement, with a seconds hand, will tend to have the same counts. This movement's combination also runs fine at 18,000 BPH, but it is physically impossible for the hands to read correctly.
For comparison, here are the values of the train counts for a typical 18 size Elgin pocketwatch, non-slow beat.
Great Pinion: 12
Great Wheel: 80
3rd Pinion: 10
3rd Wheel: 75
4th Pinion: 10
4th Wheel: 80
Esc Pinion: 8
Esc Wheel: 15
Fortunately, this watch's train layout is very similar to other American watches or this size and era. The height, the distance between the plates, is a bit atypical in places, but the layout is common. It was a bit of work but I was able to swap to wheels with replacements having different counts. The wheels only had to be altered a small amount for a good pivot size and for the height of the movement.
I replaced three wheels for an atypical count, but one that worked out to give the correct time readings at 18,000 beats per hour.
These additional images show the lever-setting mechanism.
Just after Christmas, there's a certain category of inquiries that stands out: questions from those that have received an antique watch as a gift this holiday season. One of the most common flavors these inquiries come in, are those from people that have broken the crystal on their "new" watch and would like to have it replaced.
Now, I get emails about watch crystals every week. But for about a week after Christmas, I get at least one, and often more, every single day. Firstly, I do not generally replace crystals (this may seem odd, but consider that your auto mechanic and auto body and paint work are probably done in separate shops). Replacing crystals and other case repairs call for specialty services with a large selection of crystals on hand, and possibly the machinery to custom cut the glass to fit.
Here are few other things to know about vintage watch crystals...
Because of the content of my web sites, I mostly receive emails about broken crystals on Elgin pocketwatches. The first thing to point out about early pocketwatches is that, like other American companies, Elgin never made pocketwatch cases. Under well into the '20s, the majority of watch companies did not sell watch cases at all. The common practice was that a customer would pick out a bare movement and a case separately at the shop and the watchmaker or jeweler would assemble them together. Because of this your movement and the case don't "go together" in any hard set way. Someone needing a crystal for an antique Elgin pocketwatch is not looking for a standardized Elgin part. A description of the watch is of no use in determining the crystal it needs.
This is one of the reasons that the business of replacing crystals requires having a large variety on hand. Add to this the fact that antique items are simply not as standardized as modern manufactured goods. As with the watches themselves, every watch case may be a little different, even for two cases that are supposed to be the same.
And because of this, there's another thing to know; when you have a crystal replaced, you will have to send your entire watch in for the job. Even if you can measure the diameter required accurately, there are different styles of the profile of the edge. And the crystal has to provide clearance under the glass for the hands, both at the center and at the out side edge. It's not a simple matter of pulling off the shelf a crystal for watch XYZ and snapping it in place. If you want it done right, send your watch to a professional.
One more point about hunting case crystals, that is crystals for cases with front covers, like the one pictured here... Be aware that glass hunter case crystals are extremely fragile. The glass is like eggshell. It shouldn't be touched at all. And keep in mind that glass crystals are literally extinct in some sizes and can not be replaced, except with plastic substitutes. When it's destroyed, it's gone.
Once every month or two I return a hunter cased watch to a customer, only to receive an email a few days later inquiring about replacing the newly broken crystal. This is heartbreaking. These watches are fragile antiques. Parts have not been made in decades, please handle them gently.
Your watch may be 100, or 150, years old, or more. It has survived a long time. Treat it with care and respect and it will be around for the future to enjoy as well.
And finally, here's a few words about daily use antiques, and also here.
I have many regular customers that use antique watches everyday. And that's why they are regular customers. They understand that antique watches require care and feeding.
They also are willing to pay the ever increasing cost of the parts they consume. I wish I could impress upon more people the spare parts situation. Parts for these watches have not been made for decades, or even a century. Every time something is broken that is one less factory part that exists in the world. We're running out, fast. I notice this almost month to month now. For example, in full plate 18 size American watches, the pallet arbor pivots are often broken. On Elgins, as recently as a year ago I could still buy this part NOS. As of a few months ago, they are now gone. Completely. The next time someone sends me a watch with that part broken, they are in for a surprise at the cost of repivoting, or making a new part from scratch.
And some parts can't be made, at least not by me. A few years ago, the last major maker of mainsprings discontinued a vast array of springs. They still make the very most common ones, but for most, we are burning through the remaining inventory. Than that's that.
Also, no matter how much you think it won't happen, every time a watch is handled, there is a chance of dropping it. It happens. Believe me. I get watches from experienced collectors, watches that I worked on before, and they have to send again because they dropped it. When that happens, the balance staff, at least, is almost always broken - and that's one less part in the world. Elgin, Waltham and Hamilton staffs are still pretty common. But it's getting to be tough for others. When a replacement is not available, it has to be fabricated, from scratch, by hand.
Antique watches also have eccentricities and issues, and accuracy is just the beginning. When the sort of watches I work on were originally made it was not uncommon for people to walk around with watches that ran 10 minutes off per day, or more. People expect me to get to under a minute a day, and mostly I do. But what many people do not realize is that on many watches, that adjustment will not hold over time, particularly in low jeweled movements. Also, people don't realize the degree to which the rate fluctuates during the day, and due to temperature changes and motion - especially on the older pieces. It's not magic, I can't make them not have problems that are inherent to the early designs.
Antiques can be hard to use too. I've been asked all sorts of things, like can I make a watch not tick so loud? Can I make it easier to wind? One person complained to me once about key-setting being awkward. "Why on earth did they make them like this?" I was asked. I had to gently point out that it was 150 years ago and better designs had not been invented yet.
My Grandfather told me that in such situations, it was a good idea to point out to people that in the 19th century the pocketwatch was considered a technologically superior alternative to the sun dial.
There's something about watches that doesn't seem to apply to other antiques. No one inherits their great-grandfather's Model T Ford and immediately expects to drive it to work everyday as a regular commuter vehicle. Yet people do exactly this with watches all the time!
I own a lot of watches... I have quite a few basic, reliable, not especially valuable, antiques that I cycle through occasional use, especially if I am going to be someplace where it might come up and I can talk to people about watches. But my true everyday watch is a cheap-ish Seiko 5 automatic wristwatch. And when I need to know the time, accurately, I use my phone or my computer, both of which get their time online.
Just as another example, early American pocketwatches use the English style tangential lever escapement, which is unstable when moved around. Around 1900 or so, American makers switched to the superior Swiss style lever which operates perpendicular to the escape wheel. The technology changed, and improved, like anything else.
It's worth pointing out a basic fact that an early pocket watch would have never been carried in a pants pocket, way too much motion. It would have been chest level in a watch pouch most likely.
So there you have it, my rant about antiques... Of course you can carry your antique watch, so long as you know what you're getting into. Please just understand the limits of an old watch's performance.
It is often the case with replacement parts that they aren't exactly right, particularly the older ones, even when they are supposed to be "the right part". Even during the original assembly at the factory, parts were hand-fit. And it's one the rules of this sort of work that we never modify other parts to find the replacement, always alter the replacement.
When you open up an old watch, you'll find 100 years worth of repairs of all sorts and all sorts of parts, often hand made from scratch. I am sometimes asked by potential customers if I use only factory original parts. It's hard to explain the many reasons that this question doesn't even make sense, not the least of which is that the factories that made these parts have not existed for decades or longer.
I was once asked if I use only factory new parts in watches. This question is off base in a couple of ways. One is that parts for these watches have not been manufactured for 100 years or more. There is no one you can just call up to order something or other. Secondly, parts were often not made in a factory to begin with. I see quite a lot of hand-made parts in watches. Even for machine made watches like Elgins, in the 18th century in particular it was much more cost effective to make a part than to have a "real" one shipped from the factory.
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