Thanks for visiting my vintage Hamilton watch blog. I like to restore US-made Hamilton wrist watches back to their original glory and share my experiences with other enthusiasts. Use the "Search" space below if you know what model you're looking for. Feel free to leave polite comments or questions in the spaces provided. Also check out my "watches for sale" on my Etsy site - the link is on the right, just below.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tools you need...

I started this blog a couple of years ago as an outlet for what has become a very passionate hobby.  For me, it is just that - a hobby.  It's intensely rewarding to restore a watch to good timekeeping.  It also can be extremely frustrating and unforgiving.  It's sort of like golf - except I can do it in an hour and at night.

Like pretty much everyone, my interest in watches was piqued by inheriting some family pieces.  Some, like the Hamiltons, I was able to get repaired and working as they should.  There were others that I could not get repaired because watchmakers didn't want to work on the more garden variety makes (like a 7 jewel New York Standard).   I realized that if I was going to get my great grandfather's New York Standard working, I would have to do it myself.

So I did.

One of the barriers to collecting is the maintenance costs.  Every "new" vintage watch should be serviced before wearing, unless you buy it as serviced from someone you trust.  Overhauls can easily add another $75 - $100 to each new acquisition and that can really add up fast.

One of the fringe benefits of restoring Hamiltons is I have met a lot of very nice people along the way.   I get asked frequently by new collectors about how to get started in doing their own work.  This is not an easy "row to hoe", as they say, but with patience and dedication it can be learned.

If you wanted to give it a try, here are the basic tools that you will need.  As a general rule, buy quality tools.  They are worth the slightly higher investment.

First, you need to be able to see what you are doing.  If your eyesight is perfect you might be able to get by with just an occasional loupe.  For me, I like to wear a jeweler's visor with a flip down monocle for additional magnification when needed.  An additional 10X loupe is helpful for checking jewels for dirt or cracks.

Next, you're going to need to get into the watch.  That can usually be done with either a case knife, a case wrench or a crystal lifter.

Now that you have access to the movement - the next tool you will need is a screwdriver.  Screwdrivers come in various widths.  You should always match the width of the screwdriver to the width of the screw head.  Fortunately you can purchase sets of the most common sizes.  If you want to do pocket watches too - you'll want a 7 or more screwdriver set.

At this point you have all the tools necessary for getting to the dial-side of the movement.  You'll want to pull the hands and dial so in addition to a screwdriver (for the dial foot screws) you'll need a hand puller.  I like the Presto style.

At this point you'll need to have a movement holder.  You do not want to attempt this type of work without a quality holder.  I like the Bergeon 4040, myself.  There's a smaller version (4039) for smaller watch movements like ladies grades.  They're reversible too - so you can do up to size 16 size pocket watches in the 4040.

With the movement secured in a holder, you're going to need tweezers to grasp small parts as you remove them.  My usual go-to tweezers are Dumont 3C but you'll want some heavier tweezers too.  Fine tweezers are very important and you want them to be strong so you don't have to constantly dress them.  Plus, you want a gentle touch - as the slightest pressure will send small parts flying, never to be seen again.  (Did I mention this is a frustrating hobby?)

At this point you have all the tools needed to completely disassemble a watch and to reassemble it once the parts have been cleaned.  Cleaning the parts can be done in an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner of your choosing.  The solutions you clean with is important too.  There are lots of tricks of the trade but commercially available cleaners and rinses work best, in my opinion.  I use L&R ultrasonic non-ammoniated watch cleaner and rinse.  I also use "one-dip" for hairsprings and pallet forks.

I have three baby food jars, one for cleaner and two for rinse.  The parts go into the cleaner, then the first rinse jar and then the second rinse jar.  Each jar goes into a water-bath in the ultrasonic for about 7 minutes.  So it takes a good 20+ minutes to clean all the parts.  Hairsprings and pallet forks don't go into the ultrasonic - you don't want to shake loose the jewels that are held in place with shellac.

Depending on what else you have to do - you might need a mainspring winder to install a fresh mainspring in the barrel.  It's possible to do it by hand but it's very challenging.  A winder makes easy work of it.  I like K&D style winders, myself.  They come in different sizes and are adjustable for different size barrels.

For pocket watches you will need a larger mainspring winder.  I think the K&D 128 set does a nice job but there are others.

The set consists of several mandrels for winding springs for various barrel sizes.  When it comes to pocket watch springs, they can really pack a wallop when they're wound so you need to be very careful when handling them.

When you reassemble a watch, every jewel needs to be properly oiled.  I use three types of lubricants in each watch I service.  I use Moebius synthetic 9010 watch oil in all the jewels, Moebius 8200 mainspring grease, and finally I use KT-22 lubricant on the stem and keyless works.  Modern watches could use other lubricants too - but since all the movements I work on predate modern lubricants, I just go with the basics.

You'll need an oiler to apply a tiny droplet of oil to each jewel.  Oilers come in different sizes and look like tiny spoons.  Blue is what I typically use.  Black is even finer and I use that on ladies watches.

Changing out stems is best done with a pin vise.  They allow you to grab the stem and screw it into, or out of, the crown.  You can also use some flat jawed pliers.

By now you've got all the basic tools needed to overhaul a watch.  If the watch has a problem, then you might be outgunned.  Things like "polishing pivots" and hairspring work require skills beyond the basic hobbyist.

Assuming the watch is running once you're finished with it, you'll want to make sure the watch keeps accurate time.  There's really only one way to do that - and that's to use a watch timer.  They're pretty expensive but basic ones can be had for a couple hundred bucks.  You can try using the stop watch on your phone - but truly accurate measurement requires a timer.

With the watch regulated, you still have to put the dial and hands back.  The dial just slips right over the cannon pinion and hour wheel.  You tighten the dial foot screws and then place the hour hand on the hour wheel with tweezers.  The minute hand goes on top and you can press the minute hand down with a hand pusher.

You might be able to get by with a flat No.2 pencil eraser.

Everything goes back in the case and the case gets properly buttoned up.   All you need now is to put on a new strap.  You'll want a quality spring bar tool for this finishing touch.  A fine spring bar tool is immensely helpful when there isn't a lot of clearance.

Of course, the first few times you do this I can pretty much guarantee that you're going to break something like a balance staff, or an escape wheel pivot.  It's best to practice with one movement, over and over, until you know exactly where everything goes and how to install it.   Parts movements will eventually equip you with the spare parts you need to replace the things you break or lose.

Eventually you'll have so many broken balances laying around that you'll be tempted to learn how to replace them.  That's going to require a staking set.  In fact, a lot of basic operations require staking tools to various ilk.  For example, hands can be tightened or loosened using a staking set.  Cannon pinions can be tightened on a staking set.  Jewels can be removed and replaced with staking tools.

After reading all of the above - if you're still crazy enough to want to get into this hobby then you should start with this basic investment and refer to it a LOT.  The Watch Repairers Manual was written a long time ago but since these watches were made back then, you'll find the book to be a great reference.  Don't be surprised if you are overwhelmed by the complexity of some things.  Once you develop some confidence you can take more in.

One of the most important things to understand is that there are a lot of very talented professional watchmakers out there.  They've gone to trade schools, studied under other master watchmakers, and have expensive equipment to tackle the most challenging of tasks.  It's a good idea to seek out the watchmakers in your area and develop a rapport with them.  They're professionals and skilled at their craft.  Therefore, most will not be interested in fixing projects that you have screwed up.  However if you respect that this is how they make their living (and it's not easy work), they will hopefully encourage your continued development.

Checkout the AWCI website to find the watchmakers nearest you.   The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute


  1. This is just an amazing website. Thanks so much for sharing your passion and knowledge. I am looking forward to restoring some Hamilton's myself. I just love their vintage watches.

  2. Hey Dan!
    Just sent you an email from Dubai. Lo-and-behold...I found this! It's an excellent resource for those of us who may wish to get our feet wet. A great chunk of information to be sure -- appreciate what you do.

    1. Got your note... your answer is above. It's a little like the old joke "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" (practice, practice practice).

  3. Hey! Could you show us how you use the K&D mainspring winders? I purchased a pair but to my surprise I haven't been able to find a single tutorial/manual on how to properly use them..

    1. I'll try to explain that process more in detail on a future post. I rewind mainsprings on pretty much every watch I overhaul so it's very commonplace for me. But I'll take a few photos in the near future so stay tuned!

    2. Thank you! Much appreciated.

  4. Where can you find quality staking sets, mainspring winders and other tools listed in your post?

    1. If you want used stuff, then eBay. Used stuff can often be the best stuff. However, if you want new stuff, then Ofrei, Esslinger, Casker, Jules Borel, etc. are all good options but bring lots of money. Don't buy cheap new stuff - as tools need to be high quality or you'll regret it.

    2. Thanks for the all the info!

  5. Which ultrasonic cleaner do you use? And are all ultrasonic cleaners comparable with small, breakable watch parts ( gears, bridges, etc.)?

    1. I use a jewelry cleaning ultrasonic from Amazon... a step above the most basic unit. You can see they come in different power ratings. An ultrasonic won't break anything but it could shake loose things and free paint from engravings, printing from dials, and stuff like that. The parts of watches that tend to break (pivots, mainly) break from force, not ultrasonic waves.

  6. Awesome idea, nice work. I look forward to trying this out.