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An Elgin Watchmaker Working on a Railroad Watch

What You Need To Know About Watch Repair

There is a lot that you need to know about watch repair, but many people are looking for quick answers, so here they are. Keep reading if you want to know more. These answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) are aimed at vintage watches, but there is nothing specific to Elgins, and most of this applies to new mechanical watches too.

NOTE:   If this watch has been in your family or somehow has a connection to you, DON'T EVER SELL IT! Selling your watch usually won't get you more money than the price of a nice dinner out, but you will never get another watch from your grandfather. Besides, watches don't take up much room, just take care to store it in a dry place.

Table of Contents

Short Answers
Where can I get my watch repaired?
How often should I get my watch serviced?
How much should a servicing cost?

Longer Answers
Which watches can be repaired?
Where can I get my watch repaired? (longer)
How often should I get my watch serviced? (longer)
How much should a servicing cost? (longer)
What does it mean if I was told I "over wound" my watch?
What does it mean if I was told that you can't get parts?
What does it mean if I was told that my watch can't be fixed?
Can I repair my own watch?


Short Answers

You can skip straight to the longer answers, if you want, you won't miss anything.

Where can I get my watch repaired?

The watchmakers that I recommend are Ed Ueberall (stdwatch@aol.com) of The Escapement watch repair, Doug Sinclair, and Rob Berkavicius fotoplot@iinet.net.au. Watches can be easily and safely shipped via the mail, so in my opinion, it is much better to find a good watchmaker than a close one. Be aware that not all watches can be repaired, especially low cost watches and quartz watches.

Just like you should do with all your valuables, it is a good idea to take pictures of your watch, both the outside and the watch movement (where the gears are). You should also record all serial numbers and markings on the watch. Good watchmakers will help you with this, if you have problems.

How often should I get my watch serviced?

If you are going to use the vintage watch on a daily basis, you should get your watch serviced when you first get it and every couple of years there after. You shouldn't wait for your watch to stop working before servicing it any more than you would wait for your car to stop working before you would change its oil.

If you aren't going to use the vintage watch, you should have it inspected to make sure that what you got was what you thought you were going to get.

You should also immediately get your watch cleaned if the insides (movement) ever gets wet, or even if you just see moisture forming on the inside of the crystal. Don't trust the "water proofing" on vintage wrist watches, treat them like pocket watches and non-water resistant wrist watches.

Most vintage watches can be fixed, but rust is the #1 killer of watches.

How much should a servicing cost?

Watch repair is skilled labor, and a good servicing can take quite a bit of time. I have heard of quotes from $20 to $500, but you don't always get what you pay for. Reasonable prices seem to be in the $50-$150 range for cleaning a simple pocket or wrist watch.

Complicated watches such as chronographs will cost more, as will brands that have hard to find or expensive parts such has the high end Swiss watches. Swiss, English or other non-American watches made before around 1910 can be very hard to find parts for, often they have to be custom made by hand.

Remember, this is just a cleaning, you should expect that any other work your watch requires will cost more accordingly. Old watches were put away in a drawer for a reason, often because they were broken or unreliable.


Longer Answers

Some information here is repeated from the short answers.

Which watches can be repaired?

In theory, any watch can be repaired, but in practice many watches can not be repaired for less than the cost of replacing them. This is most often true for low cost watches and quartz watches, but it is also true for badly damaged watches such as ones that have rusted. It can also hard or expensive to find certain replacement parts.

A watch may still be worth repairing even if the repair costs exceed the replacement costs if the watch has some sentimental value to you, such as your grandmother's watch. Watches used to be heirlooms traditionally handed down when a child became an adult as new watches were too expensive for them to buy. I highly recommend keeping your watch even if you aren't that interested in it right now.

Be aware that some watchmakers only work on antique or mechanical watches and may not be able to help with the newer ones, such as quartz watches. It might surprise you that there are lots of people who can repair watches from the 1930's, but not watches from the 1990's. The reason is that the ones from the 1930's, for the most part, were designed to be repaired while the ones from the 1990's, for the most part, weren't.

Also, many watchmakers do not handle certain things like replacement watch bands, replacement links to watch bands, replacing diamonds and other jewels on a watch case and other similar "jewelry" aspects of a watch.

Where can I get my watch repaired? (longer)

The quality of work and the price charged by watchmakers varies widely. While there are many great watchmakers, there are also some "botchmakers" out there. In my opinion, it is MUCH more important to find a good watchmaker than a close one. Don't count people out because they live 3000 miles away, since they are really just as close as your mailbox.


When looking for a watchmaker, here are some questions you should consider asking:

What kinds of watches do they work on?
Some watchmakers only work on pocket watches, others on Rolexes and high end watches, many will not work on electronic watches of any kind.
Does it cost to get an estimate?
Figuring out what is wrong with your watch can take quite a bit of time. Some watchmakers will charge for estimates, often this charge will be waved if you go ahead with the repairs.
Guarantees
Most watchmakers will offer a guarantee that the watch will function correctly for some time after you get the watch back. The length of this guarantee varies from weeks to months. This guarantee will not cover the watch being dropped, nor to keep perfect time.
How long will it take?
Most good watchmakers have a backlog, but some watchmakers are just slow. Long delays is one of the most frequent complaints about watchmakers.
How are the watches cleaned?
As discussed in the repair cost section, the quality of a cleaning can vary. I recommend making sure the watchmaker fully disassmebles the watch and hand oils the watch.
Just like you should do with all your valuables, it is a good idea to take pictures of your watch, both the outside and the watch movement (where the gears are). You should also record all serial numbers and markings on the watch. Good watchmakers will help you with this, if you have problems.

Here are some good starting points in finding a watchmaker.

  • The American Watchmaker-Clockmaker Institute (AWI) has a list of watch makers. This list can be searched and sorted by location in case you want someone local.
  • Try using one of the many web search engines. You can't always judge a watchmaker by their webpage, but it's a good start. For example, look at the results of the Google search for watch repair or the the Open Directory Project category for watch repair. .
  • The NAWCC is an organization of "collectors", but many watchmakers are also members. Try looking through the NAWCC member's web links section.
  • If you really want a local watchmaker, try using your yellow pages. You might be surprised how many are close by.
  • One watchmaker that I've heard a lot of good things about is Ed Ueberall (stdwatch@aol.com), although I have not personally used his services. Ed writes a regular column for the NAWCC Bulletin on Railroad Pocket watches and really seems to know what he is doing. See his website at The Escapement.

  • Doug Sinclair has been fixing watches since he was 8 years old when his watchmaker father taught him the trade. He works on all types of pocket watches, wrist watches, clocks, tower clocks whether they are vintage items or new. He is a frequent contributor to the various watch message board systems and is always level headed, helpful and very knowledgeable. Doug lives in Canada, so if you are from the US, make sure you talk to him about proper shipping so that bogus tariffs don't get charged.

  • If you live closer to Australia you might want to consider Rob Berkavicius (fotoplot@iinet.net.au). Like Ed Ueberall, I haven't actually had a watch repaired by Rob, but I have heard a lot of good things about him and he frequently makes good posts to the TimeZone Vintage Forum. See his website at The Accutron Watch Page.

  • About the only thing I would recommend against doing is taking it to a random jewelry store.

    Once upon a time, almost all jewelry stores had a good watchmaker on staff, much like all gas stations had a mechanic. Mechanical watches have become rare and watch repair is very specialized work. Just like few gas stations have mechanics anymore, most watchmakers no longer work in jewelry stores.

    Many jewelers will claim they still repair watches, but actually send them to someone else, or have some guy who is past retirement who used to be good but now repairs only couple of watches a year, or worst of all, some new guy who doesn't know much of anything. I'm sure there are some really good watch makers that are still work in jewelry stores, but chances are, you are either going to pay more for having a middle man or get really bad results. Of course, it is different if you know your jeweler well and know that they have a good watchmaker.

    Don't take your car to the 7-11 or gas-n-stop to get it fixed, and don't take your watch to a random jeweler.

How often should I get my watch serviced? (longer)

If you are going to use the vintage watch on a daily basis, you should get your watch serviced when you first get it and every couple of years there after. Water resistant watches can usually go 3-5 years, but if want to count on it being water resistant, you should have the seals checked every year. You shouldn't wait for your watch to stop working before servicing it any more than you would wait for your car to stop working before changing its oil.

If you aren't going to use the vintage watch, you should have it inspected to make sure that what you got was what you thought you were going to get. There are pros and cons involved with having a watch in your collection cleaned. Every time a watch is worked on, there is a certain risk that something will be broken or lost. Many cleanings will also dull the finish on the parts, and this is especially true for damaskeened and two-tone finishes. Cleaning will often also clean off some of the paint in the lettering on the movement. And, of course, there is the added expense of having a watch cleaned.

On the other hand, a cleaned and oiled watch is less likely to rust or have corrosion from gunk on the metal. They aren't making any new replacement parts for antique watches, so If your watch needs parts now, you are more likely to get it fixed now than in the future.


You should also immediately get your watch cleaned if the insides (movement) ever gets wet, or even if you just see moisture forming on the inside of the crystal. Don't trust the "water proofing" on vintage wrist watches, treat them like pocket watches and non-water resistant wrist watches. Water resistant watches can actually be worse because the gaskets and seals wear out and end up trapping water inside instead of keeping it out.

Most vintage watches can be fixed, but rust is the #1 killer of watches.

Watches need to be cleaned whenever the oil has broken down or when there is too much dust and dirt on the gears. It used to be said that watches should be cleaned every year, but the quality of the oil has improved and most people don't live in as dirty an environment as they did when people used horses to get around town and heated their homes with coal.

Dust will act as an abrasive and grinds away the metal. This increases friction, both by making the surfaces rough and also by changing the shape and position of the gears. The gears are designed so that the teeth roll on each other, instead of sliding. Once the right shape is worn away, they will never be as good. In general, the older the watch, the poorer the job the case will do in keeping the dust out. Water resistant watches, even when the seals no longer keep out water, tend to do a good job of keeping out dust.

How much should a servicing cost? (longer)

The amount of work that a watchmaker does for a "cleaning" can vary widely, as can the price. Higher prices don't always mean a better job, but considering the amount of skilled labor involved, I can't see how anyone charging less than $30-$40 can be doing a reasonable job and still make enough to live on. Reasonable prices seem to be in the $50-$150 range for cleaning a simple pocket or wrist watch, although I have heard of quotes ranging from $20 to $500.

An interesting perspective on the costs and problems faced by watchmakers, can be found in this article from 1910.

For $25 or so, some watchmakers will run the entire movement through an automatic cleaning machine, and maybe throw some oil in key spots. This will often make a watch that was too dirty or is gummed up with old oil to at least "run". This lets dealers sell the watch at a much higher price because it is "running and recently serviced" rather than "not running".

For a "real" servicing, the watch needs to be completely taken a part. All parts need to be inspected for damage and wear. Any broken, worn or missing parts need to be fixed. The parts need to be cleaned, usually with an automatic cleaning machine, and then inspected to make sure the parts really got clean. The watch must be reassembled, and checked to make sure it is running well in all positions. If the watch isn't running well in all positions, the problems must be diagnosed, fixed, and possibly the watch will need to be re-cleaned and re-oiled. Finally, most watchmakers let the watch run for at least 24-48 hours to make sure everything is working right.

Some botchmakers also use "automatic cleaning and oiling solutions" which deposits an oily goo all over the watch and eats away the finish. A "real" cleaning requires hand oiling, in the right amounts and in the right spots. Too much oil can be worse than not enough.

There are some watchmakers who will charge more to people who contact them directly than they do when they work for a jeweler. This is especially common if they think you have only one watch that is a family heirloom and this is their only chance to get money from you. These watchmakers may well be willing to negotiate on their price. Others watchmakers charge everyone the same price and won't be flexible at all. They may even be slightly put off if you ask.

Complicated watches such as chronographs, repeaters, fusee, and such will cost more, as will brands that have hard to find or expensive parts such has the high end Swiss watches. Watches from Switzerland, England or other non-American watches made before around 1910 can be very hard to find parts for, often the parts have to be custom made by hand.

Remember, the price quoted as $50-$150 is for just a cleaning, you should expect that any other work your watch requires will cost more accordingly. Old watches were put away in a drawer for a reason, often because they were broken or unreliable.

Most watchmakers won't try to make a watch run more accurately than when they were originally manufactured, so when I say "check the timing in each position", on an unadjusted 7 jewel movement, they probably will just make sure that it is keeping time within 10-60 seconds/day. A high grade railroad watch, on the other hand, will probably be made to run to within 10 seconds/day in every position, with the goal of having some positions cancel the errors of the others. Railroad watches were designed to keep time, while in rough use, to 30 seconds/week and most can be made that accurate even today.

The point here is that a quote of "$25" to repair a watch probably isn't a bargain, but $150 (or more) may be very reasonable for a given watch. On the other hand, the $150 quote might be no better than $25.

What does it mean if I was told I "over wound" my watch?

You really can't "over wind" a watch, at least not without taking out a pair of pliers and really cranking on the winding crown well past the point of it being hard to turn. If you have been told that your watch is "over wound", it means one of two things:
  1. The person who told you that the watch is over wound doesn't know what they are talking and isn't honest enough to admit it.
  2. The person who told you that the watch is over wound either doesn't want to try and fix it, or can't fix it and isn't honest enough to admit it. They are also willing to make it sound like it is your fault by saying that "you over wound it."
Either way, you can take it as a sign that you should never try to have a watch repaired by them and that you should always go somewhere else.

Watchmakers who blame problems on a watch being over wound are like car mechanics who blame problems on gas tanks being over filled. Most people would laugh if they were told their car's flat tire was caused by over filling their gas tank, but they accept a broken roller jewel as being caused by over winding. There are many reasons why a watch won't run, just like there are many reasons why a car won't run. Neither a car with an empty gas tank nor a watch that is wound down will run. If cars didn't have fuel gauges, I suppose that most people would at least try filling the gas tank first, just like most people try winding the watch first. Being the last person to fill the gas tank doesn't mean you broke the car, nor does being the last person to wind the watch.

What does it mean if I was told that you can't get parts?

Unlike being told you over wound your watch, being told that "you can't get parts for your watch anymore" may be the truth. However, if your watch is of good quality, made within the last 150 years and reasonably common, parts are usually still around if you look hard enough for them. Most of the time, when a watchmaker says "you can't get parts", they really mean "I'm either not interested in working on your watch, or I don't know how to work on your watch."

Even if parts can't be found, a good watchmaker can often make those parts. If the part is simple to make, say, a winding stem, or if another part can be easily modified, this may not be too expensive and most watchmakers should be able to fix the watch. Difficult parts such as a new escape wheel, can still be made by expert watchmakers, but this can be very expensive.

Don't accept the first claim that "you can't get parts", go find a better watchmaker.

What does it mean if I was told that my watch can't be fixed?

Like being told you can't get parts for a what, sometimes people are told an old watch can't be fixed when the watchmaker really means "I'm either not interested in working on your watch, or I don't know how to work on your watch." Unless your watch is badly rusted, a good watchmaker can usually fix it. See the above section on "you can't get parts."

Can I repair my own watch?

Short answer:   NO!     Don't even try!

Longer answer:

Yes, of course you can learn to repair your own watch. You can also learn to fly your own plane and overhaul your own car engine. It will take a certain level of mechanical skill, the right education, a lot of practice, and a bunch of money for the right tools.

It is tempting to think that all a watch needs is a little oil, but most of the time, the real problem is the dirt. You can oil many watches with a single drop of oil, and if you use too much oil, the watch won't work. Oiling a watch without cleaning it just doesn't work. To remove the dirt, you must disassemble and clean the watch.

Once a watch has been taken apart the parts are easily broken (even a bend of 1/100 of an inch can sometimes be irreparable). You won't be able to moved the parts without breaking or losing things. So, never take apart a watch unless you are certain you can put it back together. Taking a watch apart without breaking anything isn't too hard, although there are many small parts that are easily lost and springs that can literally jump out of the watch and disappear. Getting the watch cleaned and put back together without breaking things, however, is much harder. Just checking to see if the watch is working correctly once it is back together requires either a lot of time (days) or expensive equipment. If the watch isn't running well, and it likely won't be, diagnosing problems and repairing a watch can be very frustrating and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge.

Unless you have a dozen watches per year to fix and don't count your time as money, it is very unlikely that you will save money over having a watchmaker fix your watch. If you enjoy working on tiny machines and consider watch repair to be an extension of watch collecting, you might consider taking it up as a hobby.

If you are interested in watch repair, you might want to read the following threads from the NAWCC BBS:

Vintage Watch Cleaning???
Newbie question on cleaning and oiling
Watch Tools
stereo microscope questions

While I'm not an expert, I believe the information on this page is correct. Please send suggestions and corrections to the webmaster.
This web site runs on 100% Open Source Software. This web page was last changed on 05/29/2004 at 18:25:38.