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!

Elgin Grade 62, H. Z. Culver

Here we have a named Elgin movement. 

It's a Howard Z. Culver,  grade 62, 18 size, 15 jewels, made about 1867.  

The plates are stained in a way that has chemically altered the surface, causing pinkish spots of oxidation.
The serial number of an Elgin movement is also typically stamped under the balance cock. There is something interesting on this one though. There is another number that has been hashed out.

One of the teeth on the ratchet wheel is broken. It will still function though. These parts are not exactly laying around, so it's best to go with what we have originally if at all possible.
Note that the serial number of the movement, 3450, is stamped on the ratchet wheel clamp. It matches the number on the top plate.

The Z in H. Z. Culver stands for Zoroaster.

Database Updated

I just did a significant database update on the watch serial number site! The site is finally going to start having a lot more data on later Elgin movements, from the 1960s, that previously was not available. It's early yet, and only a small about of new information is there now, and it may be incorrect in places. But it's a start. It will improve quickly.

I don't like to do this major update very frequently because it knocks the thing off line for quite a while, but it's up now.


Repairing a Loose Pallet Stone

This 18 size Elgin pocketwatch had a loose pallet stone. This is a common problem in movements that have not been serviced in a long time. Fortunately in this case, the stone is still there, it's just no longer secure.

The pallet stones are held with shellac. To fix this, all I have to do is to set the pallet fork in a pallet warmer and then heat the side with the issue using an alcohol lamp. Then I add a tiny speck of shellac over the back of the stone. It melts from the heat and flows in. Moving the stone a bit to and from while the shellac is liquid assures it will be secure. The shellac firms up almost instantly.

Often this task has to be repeated to get the stone at the right depth for the escapement to function, assembling the watch each time to check it.

Is Your Pocketwatch Hard to Wind?

Something I hear a fair amount is that a watch is hard to wind.

Assuming a pendent-wind watch is in good condition, and has been recently and properly serviced so that nothing is jammed, rubbing, corroded or gummed up with old worn out grease, the amount of effort needed to turn the crown to wind is a direct result of how the watch is designed.

The first factor of course is the strength of the mainspring that is being pulled into tight coils inside the watch.  Particularly on a larger pocketwatch, the force stored up in a wound spring is surprisingly great. To make it easier to coil the spring a typical watch has a pinion and two gears between the crown and the mainspring arbor, which pulls the spring itself. The gear ratios of these turning parts determine how difficult the crown is to turn, and how many turns it takes to fully wind the watch. The designers trade off making the watch very easy to wind, but taking many, many turns, versus taking very few but more difficult turns.

On watches with what we call "exposed wheels", you can see the two principle parts moving when the watch is wound; the main wheel and the ratchet wheel. The gear ratios of these two is the determining factor in how easy or difficult the watch winds.

The movement shown here has exposed wheels. The main wheel is at the bottom. It is directly turned by a pinion, at the bottom, connected to the crown. The main wheel turns the ratchet wheel shown here as the larger of the two taking up the lower left on the movement. The mainspring barrel is directly below the ratchet wheel.

In a watch that otherwise has no problems and is in good working order, with correct lubrication, and the correct mainspring installed, there is no adjustment possible that can make the watch easier to wind.


The hairspring has to be installed rotated with it's stud in the right place. The hairspring collet is friction fit to the staff, and so it can be turned (with the right tool). The stud, at the outside of the spring's coils, is held fixed by the balance cock when assembled. The stud has to be positioned such that the spring's at-rest position places the roller jewel dead center in the also dead centered fork.

Having set the roller table so that the jewel is 90 degrees to the arms of the balance, the balance wheel arms should be perpendicular to a line through the balance jewels, the pallet fork jewels and the escape wheel jewels.

If this is not right, then the balance wheel, when running, will turn more to one side than the other. A watch like this is said to be "out of beat". It will keep time poorly, and may even stop.

Seating the Roller Table

I like to seat the roller table so that the jewel is 90 degrees to the arms of the wheel. I see them seated all over, just any old way. It doesn't make any functional difference, but I think it's neater and it makes it easier to judge the position of the hairspring, to set the beat.

The balance picture has a one-piece double roller. It's part of a grade 542, 10 size Elgin pocketwatch.

Watch Parts

As replacement parts rapidly become more and more scarce, hardly a week goes by that I don't get an email asking if I could sell such-and-such replacement part. These inquiries come from a variety of folks ranging from people attempting their own watch repair, to experienced watch makers that perhaps don't usually work on antiques.

There's a few reasons I never sell watch parts. One is that it's not like I can just go to a nicely labeled cabinet and pull out the right thing. With antiques, that is almost impossible. For example, this picture shows what I was up against today trying to locate a suitable replacement jewel for a certain pocketwatch.

Another reason I don't want to deal with selling parts is that many folks seeking them don't fully realize that unlike modern products, parts frequently do not just drop into an antique watch. Even original factory made parts (assuming the labels on their packaging are even correct) quite often need to be adjusted to work.

This factory made, Elgin, replacement staff for example badly needed to be polished, tip to tip, before use in a repair.

One other parts complication, especially on very old watches, is that even factory made watches like Elgins, Walthams and Hamiltons have a deep and long history of prior repairs. It is very common that an older watch may contain hand-made replacement parts, which sometimes cause a factory replacement for some other piece to be no longer suitable.

I sometimes get asked why this work is called "watchmaking" and not simply "watch repair," and all this is one of the reasons. To fit a replacement part it is necessary to fully understand the mechanical principles of the watch's design, and be comfortable altering, or fabricating, replacement parts as needed and as suitable to the watch in hand, with respect for its engineering and individual history.

One of the basic rules of this work is that existing components should never be altered to for a replacement part. Every watch has been serviced before. And every watch is different. One has to be ready for anything.

A New Type of Animation

Google+ made this auto-awesome image today, from my uploaded photos.  Funny, of all the many times I have posted photos like these, it has never before picked up on the sequence and made such a GIF.

I wonder if they changed something...

Elgin's Last Dial?

This dial was found in Elgin, Illinois, together with a number of other unique items related to the factory. Is this Elgin watch dial the last dial made by the company, or what was left of it?

There was pretty much nothing left of this, one of America's greatest industrial operations, by 1968. It is possible that some part still operated though. There were watches being assembled, and repaired, in 1968, and perhaps just a bit later.

If anyone knows anything about this and can shed any light on the very last days of the company, we'd love to hear from you!

How a Balance Staff is Replaced

I have done a few posts on changing out a balance staff before, but I may as well do another one as some of these photos came out pretty well. Elgin staffs are riveted to the balance wheel. The pivots on the staff are hardened steel, and by far the most fragile part of the movement. Replacing the staff is a very common repair.

Here is the staff with the broken pivots. The roller table, shown, has been removed as has the hairspring.
The old staff is removed by cutting away the hub from the lower side using the lathe.
Here the hub has been cut down, leaving the shaft of the staff and a very thin bit left against the arms of the balance wheel.

The steel of the staff is hardened, so a carbide graver is used. The key is that the graver must be sharp - really sharp. The cutting edges are generally re-dressed for every use, but this will have to be another subject another day.
With the old staff's hub very close to cut away, but not quite, the staking tool is used to pop off the remaining bit and free the balance wheel.

The left over part of the hub is like a tiny washer.  Note that the hub that is cut away is the lower side. The upper side, opposite, of the wheel's arms is where the rivet is. Cutting the hub side is the only completely safe way to do this without risk to the balance wheel.

The balance is riveted on, and tested for turning freely in the watch.

Riveting is a two step process, first using a round face hollow stake, and then a flat face for the finish.
The wheel should turn very freely.
The double roller is friction fit again using the staking set.

This roller is a one piece double roller. Single rollers are just a disc (roller table) without the extra guard, visible in this photo situated above the roller table.

Some double rollers are two pieces. These are trickier to install since the upper part must be perfectly aligned with the jewel pin.
With the hairspring installed, this balance assembly is ready to go.

The rotation of the hairspring is important. The stud location needs to cause the roller jewel to free dead natural, in the middle of the pallet fork. When this is off center, the balance will turn more one way than the other. This is wasteful of power, and causes irregular rates and can even stop the watch.

An 18 Size Elgin, Before and After

Here is a another video made by a customer showing their watch.  This is older, but I don't think I posted it here at the time.  Enjoy!

Vintage Machinery, and Pocketwatches

+Keith Rucker has some nice videos up about vintage machine tools and his various projects.  It's interesting stuff, worth checking out.

But I especially like this video. At about 24:00 he shows off his pocketwatches.

Elgin Grade 83, Sweep Seconds

The grade 83 Elgin is an example of an Elgin design with a sweep second hand, that is a second hand mounted in the middle of the dial rather than in a separate sub-dial. These are sometimes called "doctors' watches".

To move the seconds to the center, the 2nd wheel has a tall post that come up through the back plate. A sweep wheel mounts on that post.

The center wheel shaft is a hollow tube.  Into that goes a long shaft that will have the second hand at one end and a pinion, engaging the sweep wheel, on the back.

The 4th wheel, which normally carries the second hand, of course does not stick thing the front as they usually do.

This close up shows the center wheel, with the hollow center for the sweep seconds mechanism, and the 2nd wheel staff, with the unusually long portion that will extend out the back.
Here is the movement without the sweep mechanism in place, and the seconds pinion, and bridge, that will drive the center seconds hand.

Here is the finished assembly of the sweep seconds mechanism.

Here we see that the dial on this watch, having a sweep seconds hand, indeed has no sub-dial at 6:00 where it would, due to the location of the 4th wheel, usually be.

This watch is quite full of surprises. The case this watch was found in is an open-face case (having no front cover), as watch used for a professional or engineering purpose would be. The dial, correctly, was positioned such that the 12:00 and the stem would be up when holding the watch normally.

As an aside for a moment...  These dials are typically held on by dial "feet" which are little posts that go into the bottom plate.  Screws or pins go into the side of the feet to hold them.  This watch has screws in the edge of the plate that tighten in against the feet and hold the dial.  Or they would have.  On this watch the dial feet have been neatly cut off.

Why? Elgin designed its dials with the feet in a certain arrangement such that the dial only goes one way.  You can't put in on in a way such that the hole that a dial usually has for the seconds falls in line with the 4th wheel post where the second hand goes.

But there are two types of dials, one has the 12:00 opposite from the seconds for open-face movements (stem up at the 12:00, seconds at 6:00).  And the other dial will place the seconds 90 degrees from the stem, the stem being at 3:00, for a hunter case.

This watch has had its dial feet cut off so that the dial can be rotated for the 12:00 "up" at the stem, for its open-face case. This watch has no sub-seconds dial at the 4th wheel, so it doesn't matter.  This movement, and dial, were actually made for a hunter case!

Without the dial feet, this dial is held on by friction. A neat metal band has been attached around the edge of the dial. This makes a lip which snaps over the edge of the main plate perfectly. There is a tiny cutout for the setting lever. The cutout is blurry but visible in the image here, at the rear edge.

Was this done at the factory? I can't say, but it is extremely good work.
Here is the watch, which the sweep seconds hand installed. Note the seconds markers around the outside of the dial.

The stem we can not see, but it is at the 12:00, making this dial work for an open-face case.

This particular watch was made about 1882.

It is a 16 size, 15 jewel movement.

Sweep Wheel Remover

This tool is used for removing the wheels that drive sweep second hands. It is similar in design to pullers used for cannon pinions and hands, but it has specialized tips. One tip has two hooks in order to grab the inside hub of a wheel straddling one of the arms of the wheel, one one side of the hub, and the hub itself on the other.

This is one of those specialized tools that is not often used, but is the only good way to do the task when it's called for.

This tool is used for removing the wheels that drive sweep second hands. It is similar in design to pullers used for cannon pinions and hands, but it has specialized tips. One tip has two hooks in order to grab the inside hub of a wheel straddling one of the arms of the wheel, one one side of the hub, and the hub itself on the other. This is one of those specialized tools that is not often used, but is the only good way to do the task when it's called for.

Unexpected Watchmaker's Marks

"Watchmaker's marks" are codes usually inscribed inside the back cover of watch cases. These codes have no standardized meaning, they were only meaningful to the person that made them.

This watch has something unusual. Someone used a sticker. It's a shame I can't leave it there.  Stickers like this come loose as they get old.

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