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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!

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D'oh!


Right after I took this photo, I immediately noticed I'd done something wrong here.  Anyone see it?

Why Have Your Watch Serviced?

Q: Why should a watch that runs fine be serviced?

A:  Here we see not an atypical example of watch watches look like inside before servicing. This is a view under the dial of a lever-set watch, where of course the bezel would have been frequently removed to set the watch, allowing all sorts of dirt inside.

Watches that look like this inside are often described as "running fine". But I'm sure the potential for problems is clear in these images.

Running a watch without service is very much like running an old car without ever changing the oil. It may well "run fine", until it doesn't. And when it doesn't, a serious problem will likely have been caused by grit and grime, mixed with gummy old oil grinding away at moving parts like sandpaper.

Watches offered on sites like eBay that are described as running are very likely to be in good general shape, and not need a lot of replacement parts. In fact something half of watches that don't tick, do not actually have anything broken but are just seized up with gummy old gunk. But they do need service.


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.


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.

Discussion

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).





An Early Elgin, Grade 69, Part 1

Here we have an Elgin with a very low serial number, a very early watch definitely in the very first batch produced at the factory. The first serial number used for the first watch produced by the then National Watch Company was 101.

This one is a grade 69 B. W. Raymond model, 18 size, 15 jewels, key-wind and key-set made in 1867.  




Burt's Patent

What is Burt's Patent?

Very early Elgin watches are marked "Burt's Patent".

Burt was Merritt Burt (1828-1849) and his invention, later improved by Moseley, protected the watch train in case of breakage of the click, click spring or mainspring; patent No. 44,161 dated September 13, 1864.

From the History of the City of Elgin, published by The Chicago Republican, 1867:

Another advantage will highly recommend itself particularly to the absentminded. Everybody knows that whenever the click-spring of a watch gets out of order, or the click itself breaks, the entire power of the spring acts directly upon the train, and a disaster must occur somewhere, and some of its delicate parts must give way. Most everybody knows, too, that a thoughtless turn too much with the key will very likely break the mainspring, with a like disastrous result to the train. The possibility of these calamities is entirely obviated here by the peculiar construction of the center pinion, which receives its motion from the barrel wheel, and communicates it through the center wheel to the rest of the train. 


In all other watches, the center pinion and staff are one piece. Through the center pinion of the National watch is a tapering hole, and the center staff is turned with a corresponding taper to fit. A concave or screw washer and a nut hold the pinion up. The staff thus fitting closely to the pinion, there is friction enough between them to prevent revolution, and to carry the train. Should the spring break, however, the recoil, instead of acting upon the train, simply turns the pinion around the staff, and no harm results to the train. This improvement, the invention of Mr. MERRITT BURT, of Cleveland, Ohio, which is exclusively owned by the National Watch Company, is called Burts patent,and alone gives a practical value to this watch over all others in existence.



Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 2, Cases

The following is a continuation on a topic I am frequently asked about, buying your first vintage pocketwatch. You can find part one here:
http://elgintime.blogspot.com/2015/03/shopping-for-pocketwatch-part-1-getting.html

Watch Cases

The first two categories of watch cases to be familiar with are hunter, or hunting, cases and open face cases.

Hunter style pocket watch cases have a lid that covers the dial. The lid is released by pressing down on the crown. And by the way, if you have a hunter style case it is important to always press the stem down when closing the watch lid as well, rather than "clicking" it closed. The catch on a hunter case wears out very quickly otherwise. If the catch wears down, the watch case will no longer stay closed.

Hunter cases seem to be what everyone wants today, however you should be aware that there are some significant drawbacks. Hunter cases are very much more fragile due to the extra moving parts. The hinge for the cover is easily bent, or broken. And the glass on the front, the crystal, has to be paper thin to allow room inside.

A pocketwatch that does not have a lid over the face is called an open face watch. Simple enough... For men's watches, open face cases were more common at the time they were made. The style was considered more professional, and less jewelry. Railroad watches were always required to be open face.

If you are looking for a watch that can stand up to frequent use, open face is the way to go.

Case Materials

The most common material for antique watch cases are either one of several nickle alloys, or gold filled, or the similar rolled gold. Solid gold and solid silver are also around, but of course tend to be more expensive. For watches at lower prices, to be used occasionally, the nickle alloy, or gold filled are both good choices.

The material of a case is often marked inside the back cover. The nickle alloy cases will say silveroid, silverode or something similar.

Gold filled, or rolled gold, cases may, inside the back, say guaranteed or warranted for a number of years, such as 10, 20 or 25. This number of years is a reflection of the thickness of the gold, and therefor the expected number of year of wear before the base material shows though.

Gold filled and rolled cases are made using a sandwich of base metal, often brass, with gold on the outside. This sandwich is rolled or otherwise squeezed to the desired thickness, and the case is made from the resulting sheets.

Vintage watch cases are not gold plated. The amount of of gold in the outer layer on a gold filled case is much greater. Gold plating would likely wouldn't last even one year before being worn through.

Links!


Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 1, Getting Started

A lot of people are interested in vintage watches these days, and I am often asked for advise on buying a pocketwatch.  Browsing eBay and antique shops can leave one feeling pretty uncomfortable putting down money on a timepiece.  There's a lot out there, all sorts of types and prices.  The whole thing can be a bit of a mystery.

As with many things though, it really just a matter of learning as you go.  Watches are fascinating objects, rewarding to own and collect.  And the learning about them never stops.  Getting started is just a matter of a few basics.

So You Want to buy an Antique Watch...

To begin, there are a few things to consider.  I find that a remarkable body of information about watches, that used to be everyday common knowledge, has pretty much vanished today.  So there are a few things to know going in.

  • Antique watches are fully mechanical devices. They are very easily damaged by physical shocks.
  • Antique watches are not remotely water resistant, and are subject to damage due to temperature, salt air, even tiny amounts of dust, moisture and other environmental factors.
  • An antique pocketwatch in daily use requires regular maintenance, by a skilled watchmaker, to function correctly overtime. While these watches were once used everyday, but they typically received a complete overhaul every year.  Today, every year would be over kill, but maintenance is a requirement.
  • Antique pocketwatches are not accurate by today's standards. A very good watch, cleaned and adjusted with care, can achieve an accuracy of +/- a minute or so per 24 hours. 
Makes

It should surprise no one that I am most enthusiastic about American watch companies.  And for the first time buyer, who wants to use a watch at least now and then, these are good choices.  The American companies dominated the watch trade from the 1850s up into the 1940s or '50s.  Their products are today, the most common and most reliable.  The early American watchmakers were the first to focus intensely on accuracy, utility, interchangeable parts, standardization - all at an affordable price due to modern factory production.

The first names to know on this front are still recognized watch and clock names today, even though the original companies are gone; Hamilton, Waltham and of course Elgin.

What Sort of Watch?

Most people would like to use a watch as, well, a watch. That means carrying it, and using is as functional piece. If one is just getting started, this means a good choice is a watch that is durable, inexpensive, easily repaired, and a good fit form modern clothing.

My personal suggestion with the above in mind would be a basic 12 size Elgin from the 19-teens, '20s or '30s. There are basic grades Elgin made during this period that are solid workhorses, and they sold a lot of them so the prices today are not high. There are easily repaired, and a good size for modern styles.
Size 16 Elgins are not too bad either. The size is still manageable. Their designs are very similar to the 12 size products. But I do find the 12 size grades to be a bit more stable.

18 size watches attach people, and there's no better them for drama. But they'll put holes in your pockets. They are just too big and heavy. One of those forgotten bits of lore I referred to above is that such larger watches used to be carried, often, in leather pouches worn around the neck, or on the belt line. This is a style of watch wearing that has disappeared from contemporary popular culture.
Jewels

7 jewels, 15 jewels, 21 jewels... Isn't a watch with more jewels better?

Not necessarily. Jewels are used in watches because of their hardness and uniformity. The jewel counts increase from 7 up by adding additional jeweled bearings. A hardened steel pivot is a donut-like jeweled bearing is extremely accurate and durable. But it is also more fragile than jeweled bearings. Unjeweled bearings are basically a hole in metal, with the steel pivot which will be made heavier than in the jeweled design. In the 20th century, shock resistant jeweled bearings came into use, but in early pocketwatches, the jeweled bearing are notably less robust and more easily broken than their unjeweled counterparts.

Speaking in very general terms, jeweling can be thought of as trading off greater delicacy, to get greater accuracy. Frankly, in this day and age there are commonly available sources of correct time thousands of times more accurate than any antique watch could ever be. So the accuracy, alone, is not a reason to favor higher jewel counts today, particularly for a "first watch". In addition, we're talking about antiques here, not new product that are easily compared and rated. Every individual watch is different. A given 7 jewel watch may will be more accurate than a given, specific 19 jewel watch. It all depends.

Next Considerations

That gets us started on watch shopping.  But there's so much more!  Check back here for more, starting with case styles.

Links!


Elgin Grade 372

This is a fine example of Elgin's grade 372. It's a high end 16 size, 19 jewel movement, lever-set, made about 1914. The double-sunk, railroad style dial is a nice to see on a watch like this.


How Pocketwatch Cases Work

There are a variety of types of pocketwatch cases. Recently a problem came up that makes for a nice opportunity to show one of the older types, commonly found with older, 19th century, American movements, and discuss how the movements are held in place.

In general, watch movements go in through the front of the cases, rest on a lip or rim, and then are held from the back by case screws. These screws go in the movement close to its outer edge, and have broad heads that thus overlap the back rim of the case so the movement can not come back out through the front.

Most watches typically have two case screws. But older ones use a design having just one screw. Opposite the screw's position there is a hole in the inside of the case rim. A pin sticking out of the side of the movement goes in that hole, holding the movement from that side.

Recently, I was sent a movement for service, and a case to put it in. The movement was one of those older styles, with the pin. And at first the case seemed fine. It is the type with the hole.

Above is an image of two cases. The case at hand is on the left. The hole is visible just to the left of the pendent. The case on the right is for comparison.

Here is a view of the case with the hole. This case also has a large hole in the back as it supports a key-wind movement.

But there is a problem.

Looking closely at this image we see that there is no lip alone the inside edge for the dial-side of the movement to rest on. The inside edge is smooth. The movement does fit in this case. however, expect for the pin sticking out, it would freely pass right though and out the back! Sure, the pin would prevent this, but the single case screw only stops the movement from coming out the front. The movement, installed in this case, would remain free to tip out the back.

 Here is a closer view of the hole.
This is the other case. It is a later design, used with two case screws - no hole. But just the same it illustrates the important difference.

There is a ledge or lip around the inside, just below where the hole would be, for the dial-side plate (the lower plate or main plate) of the movement to rest.
Resting on this plate, the movement can not go out the back. The case screws secure it from going out the front, and the movement is held in place.
The first watch case, not having this lip is an odd problem.

Elgin Grade 303, 8 Sided

The grade 303 was a popular and reliable movement. Elgin sold a lot of these and we see them pretty commonly today. It is a 12 size movement, 7 jewels. This one, made about 1918, features a less common case style, octagonal, and a gold toned dial. 

Elgin Grade 294

Elgin's grade 294 is an 18 size, 7 jewel, movement, pendent wind and set. This example was made about 1909.


Waltham 1908 Model

Here's a great Waltham. It's a 16 size, 21 jewel, 1908 model, in an excellent gold filled hunter case. Nice watch!


Tightening a Solid Cannon Pinion

This is the dial side of a Waltham 1857 model pocketwatch movement. These have a solid, thick walled, cannon pinion.

The cannon pinion is friction fit on the center post and intended to grip the center post tight enough so that the pinion (and thus the hands) turn with the post while the watch is running. But the pinion slips too, so as to allow setting the watch.

A common problem is that the cannon pinion slips too easily, and so slips when the watch is running. As a result, the hands do not move, even though the watch is ticking away normally, and the center shaft is turning. To correct this, the grip of the cannon pinion has to be tightened. Later watches have a sort of finger cut out in the side of this part. This finger can be bent inward to grip the center shaft more. But earlier watches like this one have a thick, solid cannon pinion.

In these instances there is no good fix. The cannon pinion can not be safely crimped as it will break - or damage the tool used.

From time to time, I see one like this one.  A portion of the part's side wall has been filed away, very close to breaking through to the hollow inside, but not quite. Then the inside of the cut out is dimpled in, as so tightens the cannon pinion's grip.

It's not a great fix, but some cases there are no good options. At least this is a neat and tidy job.


As an aside, the teeth at the base of the cannon pinion drive the minute wheel, which in turn drives the hour wheel. This "dial side works" is not shown here, but it hard-ties the two hands to each other. One can not move with out the other moving, and they are an independent part of the train except as driven by the center wheel, which turns once around in 60 seconds.

Also note the squared top of the cannon pinion on this watch, for manual setting from the front with a watch key.


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