Restoring an E. Howard Pocket Watch

Published: June 16, 2014
E. Howard pocket watch front picture

This shows a front shot of an E. Howard pocket watch. The dial has been cleaned, the crystal replaced, and the hands restored.

E. Howard is one of my favorite American Pocket Watch companies. I love them because the company was tremendously innovative. When I look at their movements, I see their influence on the industry twenty to thrity years down the road. E. Howard pocket watches were truly ahead of their time and it is always a privilege to service or restore them.

A lovely lady from Missouri contacted us recently about repairing an E. Howard pocket watch that had been in her family for some time. She was referred by a past customer for whom we had repaired a Waltham Pocket watch. She said our customer had told her that he was happy with our work  – that’s always a great way to start a conversation. We discussed potential price ranges with the understanding that we couldn’t firm much up until we actually had the watch. We are always happy to discuss pricing and potential repair options with customers.

This E. Howard looks and runs great after being serviced by We Fix Watches.

This E. Howard looks and runs great after being serviced by We Fix Watches.

The customer decided she wanted to send us her watch for repair, and she did so. Once we got it, it became clear that the watch had a lot of potential for restoration. But it had a lot of obvious problems.

First, the crystal was not clear. It had become colored. This is typical of a crystal produced using “war plastic.” GS Crystals made after WWII material rations ceased were guaranteed to not “shrink or miscolor.” Crystals made during WWII material rations were guaranteed to not “shrink or fall out.” In other words, they were guaranteed to do the same thing using two different pieces of language.

The discolored crystal lead us to the next problem: rusty hands.In fact, the crystal caused this problem. Discolored crystals are almost always made of nitro-cellulose. As these crystals decay, they release nitrogen dioxide and nitric acid. There are also concerns that these crystals are hygroscopic (that they cause water to be retained). I personally believe the main issue to be the release of nitric acid.

E. Howard Pocket Watch Rear Shot

This E. Howard has a wonderful back case that carries the company name – not a third party case maker name as is common.

To say the hands on this watch were bad would be an understatement. Long rusted hands can stick together, adding an extra layer of friction that the watch has to fight through. Rust can also fall off the hands in either a coarse form or a very fine form. A fine dust was slow falling off of these hands and was getting into the watch. Without a proper service, this watch was never going to run, and any attempts to run it had the potential to damage the movement.

We completely disassembled the watch. It was too dirty for a thorough evaluation of the parts, so after a complete disassembly, we ran all of the parts through the cleaner without much more than a cursory inspection. We then inspected the parts. The balance wheel had a tremendous amount of unidentifiable goop on it. We first used a plastic tipped rod to release as much of the goop from the balance wheel as was possible, and then removed it using rodico. We then soaked the balance wheel in One Dip overnight, removed the balance wheel from the One Dip and dried it.

After making one more go with Rodico, we checked the balance wheel to make sure it was true and round. The wheel was not flat or round, but it wasn’t horrible.

We then checked the poise of the balance wheel. Balance wheels need to have perfect weight distribution, and to check poise, you place the wheel on a leveled poising tool and adjust the weight distribution of timing screws until area of the wheel is heavier than the others. Sometimes weight must be added using timing washers, and sometimes weight must be removed using “undercutters.” This watch needed no adjustments in this area. Good – that simply means no one goobered it up in the past!

As we prepared to reassemble the balance assembly, we inspected the balance jewels. The upper cap and pivot jewel were both cracked. It took some looking, but we had the jewels and replaced them. After adjusting the end shake, we put a new white alloy mainspring into the watch and properly oiled the barrel, arbor, cap, and pivots. The train of wheels was a breeze and was oiled and reassembled with no problems. The pallet worked perfectly upon reassembly as well. Properly cleaned and oiled, adjustments took minimal time on this watch. We cleaned the hands off well and painted them to match the original hands. We had earlier cleaned and polished the case and replaced the crystal – after putting everything together, we tested the watch for three days and returned to the customer.