Common American and Swiss Pocket Watch Repairs

Published: June 27, 2014

From the 1850’s to the 1950’s, many believe that America made the best pocket watches in the world when value and quality are factored together. At one time, the US led the world in pocket watch production volume. Even small towns had their own watchmaker to service watches, so getting your pocket watch repaired was not difficult.

Fast forward to the 2010’s. The landscape is entirely different. Availability of original parts has started to dwindle, and availability of qualified watchmakers has bottomed out. There are a limited number of companies with qualified watchmakers who can work on truly difficult American pocket watch repairs. We’re proud to be one of those companies. Whether you have us service your pocket watch, or another company, our goal is to help you educate you about basic pocket watch repairs.

Why Won’t My Pocket Watch Run?

American pocket watches represented the pinnacle of several hundred years of technology when they came out and, as such, are complex mechanisms. There are more reasons a watch might not run than I could fully cover in an article; entire books have been written on repairing and adjusting watches. Fortunately, our experience in servicing pocket watches is such that we rarely run into a problem that stumps us. .

Putting the rare problems aside, I can tell you that there are three types of problems that commonly keep pocket watches from running well. We’ll address these issues below.

Dirty Pocket Watches Won’t Run!

A pocket watch won’t run if it is too dirty. Neither will any other watch, for that matter. Antique pocket watches are neither dustproof nor waterproof, so they tend to get more dust into them.

Dust + oil = grime.
Lint + oil = Grime.
Lint + small gear = bind.

Heat differences between a pocket watch and its surroundings can cause the pocket watch case to slowly suck in air or push it out, and to equalize pressure between the inside of the case and the outside of the case, you’ll have air moving both ways. Over the years, you can build up enough dust in the oil to cause a bind on the watch, limiting amplitude and finally stopping the watch.

There’s another kind of “dirty” that doesn’t involve dirt, dust, or lint. It is caused by age. Every oil we buy from Moebius has a shelf life. The newest oils have amazing shelf lives. The 9010 and 9104 oils that we use on pocket watches (and, to be honest, other watches), for example, now boast a six year shelf life. This is amazing when you consider that 100 years ago, railroad grade pocket watches were inspected every month often fully serviced every few months (most commonly yearly) – often running slow because old fashioned oils, made from animals, had very poor shelf life.

To deal with a dirty pocket watch, it must be completely disassembled and cleaned. The best way to clean a disassembled pocket watch is in an ultrasonic cleaner. Even with an ultrasonic cleaner though, we sometimes encounter watches with grease and oils so old that the ultrasonic simply does not clean watches well enough.

We therefore clean our watches three times: First in the ultrasonic machine, while assembled. Second, we “peg” the jewels. This is done with a sharpened piece of pegwood. We scrape this over the jewels to remove hardened oils. This does often leave particles from the wood. Finally, we run the watch through an ultrasonic cleaner again. This process ensures a watch that is immaculately clean.

Balance hole jewels and cap jewels are a common site at which oils will get thick and the oil will be difficult to remove. This can be the case because of age oxidizing the oils. It is also commonly the case because past watchmakers have not pushed out and cleaned the jewels. The time they save is bad for your watch. It is imperative as part of a good service that the jewels be removed and hand cleaned. We do this as part of the three stage process mentioned in the previous paragraph.

A Bent or Broken Balance Staff Will Kill Your Pocket Watch

The balance assembly controls the gear train of your watch, and thus the timing. It oscillates (moves clockwise and counterclockwise), most commonly at a rate of five times a second. Adjusting the rate at which your balance oscillates is called “regulation.”

While there are a myriad of things that can affect regulation, a broken balance staff is among the most common. When we say a balance staff is broken, we are specifically speaking of one or two pivots, the parts that fit in the balance jewels. When I find broken balance pivots in a watch, they normally fit between the ridges of my fingerprints. They’re that small!

The balance staff is essentially an axle, and it goes right down the middle of the balance wheel. It is suspended using four jewels. The balance jewels hold the staff in place as far as side shake, or horizontal movement, is concerned. The cap jewels hold it in place as far as end shake, or vertical movement, is concerned.

If a watch is impacted the pivots on the end if the balance staff can either break off or bend. Either can stop the watch. Bending the staff might leave the watch running, albeit highly inaccurately.

To help you understand the issues at play, I’ve drawn some pictures of common balance staff problems:

Bent Balance Staff Pivot

[Click Above for Exploded View] This shows a classic pocket watch balance staff with a bent pivot. A watch with such a pivot would either not run or be very inaccurate.

Broken Balance Staff Pivot

Illustration of a broken balance staff pivot.

A Broken or Set Mainspring Will Leave Your Watch Powerless

Mainsprings in old pocket watches used to break. A lot. Old style carbon steel mainsprings were the best technology available when they were introduced, but were eventually replaced by white alloy mainsprings advertised, with great hyperbole, as “unbreakable.”

Most pocket watch mainsprings that break are old carbon steel mainsprings. We do run into broken white alloy mainsprings at a lower rate.

Carbon steel mainsprings that don’t break normally “set.” There are some other names floating around for set mainsprings – old watchmakers refer to a mainspring as being “tired.” A tribologist would say that they have “stress corrosion.” No matter what you call it, the end result of a set mainspring is that the watch will either run poorly or not at all.

White alloy mainsprings don’t set and they rarely break. Ridiculous longevity claims were made when these mainsprings were coming into vogue (I’ve seen early advertising literature bragging about 300 year lifespans!), but speculative claims aside, the claim that white alloy mainsprings are better is indisputable.

Occasionally we’re forced to use a carbon steel mainspring – I have a good supply of Elgin’s part number 1956, which is used in Veritas pocket watches. S. Larose made a white alloy mainspring to replace this part number, but I’ve only seen one. Neither Newall or Bestfit ever made a white alloy mainspring for this part number.

Another problem with carbon steel mainsprings is that the coils can stick together – they require lubrication between their coil layers. White alloy mainsprings are described as self-lubricating. They come from the factory with a teflon coating. After initial use, they should be lubricated properly. Since white alloy mainsprings don’t easily rust or corrode, they won’t ever stick together the way old style carbon steel mainsprings do.