Cleaning a Mainspring

Discussion in 'Watch Repair' started by Ben S., Apr 9, 2020.

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  1. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

    Dec 7, 2019
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    Hello all,

    I have a Waltham 12s 17j I’m tinkering with. It came to me not working at all. In addition to the setting spring missing (which I had another from a broken movement to replace it with), it was covered in green oil / grease. After cleaning the movement and lubricating, everything appeared to be working properly, until I tried to wind it up. Endless winding and no run.

    I opened the barrel and found it was covered in that same green oil residue. (Yes, I should have done this sooner but was waiting on the mainspring winder to arrive.) The end of the mainspring has become unattached to the barrel arbor, but does not appear to be broken. I believe the two parts should come back together easily.

    My thought is that the green stuff needs to go. My question for you all is, what is the best way to clean the mainspring without damaging it? I believe it’s a blue alloy one, but am not entirely positive on this point.

    Additionally, what would you recommend for lubricating it? Could you please describe the process?

    Thank you!
     
  2. glenhead

    glenhead Registered User
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    Wow, that's a highly-stacked question! Let's dig our way through it. (Yeah, I know, TL/DR response.)

    First off, if it's really an old or unknown blue steel spring, I'd for-sure replace it. I've had too danged many blue steel springs fail on me to trust them anymore. Mainsprings are cheap insurance. Google will help you find places that will tell you the exact spring to order and places to order one.

    The only way to find out for sure if it's blue steel is to pull it from the barrel, which you're going to have to do anyway to clean it.

    First off, record whether the spring goes in the barrel clockwise or counterclockwise. Draw a diagram, take a picture, whatever. Having to remove and replace a spring because you put the bleep thing in backwards is hyper annoying.

    My technique for removing a mainspring requires that you have thumbnails. If I've clipped mine too short recently it's a real pain in the - um - ankle? Anyway, remove the arbor. Start at the inside coil and use your tweezers to pull out the first coil just enough to slide your thumbnail under it, with your thumb tips holding the rest of the spring in place to prevent its going El Kabong on you. Don't let the spring come out more quickly than you can control completely. Turn the barrel a bit and see if you can nudge the spring out a bit to get your other thumbnail under the next coil on the opposite side. If turning it and edging it out with your thumbnail doesn't get it going you might have to use your tweezers to coax it out a bit more. Once you have it under control with both thumbnails, rock your thumbnails back and forth to release alternating sides of the spring until you get close to the outside of the barrel. Spling, spling, spling, spling. When you get close to the end, slow down and really pay attention to what you see. Some springs have extra chunks of springs tucked under hook things, some have holes, some have shaped ends riveted onto them, etc. Let the last bit out of the barrel very carefully - don't let the barrel go shooting across the room, don't break off the end of the spring, don't let the extra little piece of backward spring go to The Dryer Sock Dimension, blah blah blah. Slow and careful wins the race.

    Once it's out, take a look at its relaxed shape. A healthy spring will be freakin' huge. You'll wonder how the heck it all fit in there. A lot of springs have reverse curves that look like an S or some fancy filigreed calligraphic semblance of an S. A not-so-healthy spring will be just a coil, and it won't be a whole lot bigger than the barrel's diameter. A well-quoted difference is a minimum of three times the diameter of the barrel. In my opinion four or five times is more minimum, but I'm picky. If the spring came out in one piece (or in multiple pieces because there's a tongue held in a hook on the end, but you'll know that one when you see it) and if it's not set and if it's not blue, you can move on to cleaning it. (Skip the next paragraph if that's the case.)

    A blue steel spring is not white (silver). A silver or white spring is not a blue steel spring. A modern alloy white steel mainspring is (in my opinion) the best. Sometimes you'll only be able to buy a spring with the correct end on it in blue steel. They still make most of them. If it's a new spring from a known parts house it'll be fine, it'll just be blue. No sweat. Don't trust a new-old-stock spring or any bought-from-an-unknown-source spring. I've had many of those snap while installing them or (much worse) explode on the first winding or (annoyingly) arrive as a packet full of steel shards and powder. They're really pretty packets with interesting old pictures and writing and whatnot, but nice artwork doesn't run a watch. New steel or healthy white steel or both. Period.

    If you get to clean it, do whatever it takes. You're not going to hurt the spring unless you horse on it and kink it. Do whatever you did to get the goo off of the movement. Ultrasonics, petroleum-based cleaners, hot soap and water, whatever you want. Don't use alum or sulfuric acid or anything highly acidic or caustic or anything that you know will eat steel. Just use common sense. Simple Green might do the job, or brake cleaner, or carburetor cleaner, or lighter fluid, or bar soap and a toothbrush. Whatever you're comfortable with using that will cut grease. Once you get it clean it's a great idea to give it a good healthy swish in denatured alcohol (or rubbing, doesn't matter) and hit it with a hair dryer or something to dry it more quickly. Don't worry about drawing or removing (or any other word) the temper on the spring. Physics says you won't change a danged thing in the crystalline structure of the alloy until you hit 400F/200C. Period. Too hot to touch without raising an instant blister. Hit it with heat to dry it quickly and warmly to prevent rust.

    If you buy a new spring it'll be lubricated. If you want to lubricate the spring it's a really simple process. Cut a tiny strip of an old t-shirt or watch paper or anything that doesn't make lint or fuzz. You want something less than1/4 inch (6mm) wide and long enough to fold in half over the spring and grab both ends. An inch? Two? (25-50mm?) Fold the strip in half. Dampen (don't saturate) the folded area with the same oil you used on the center wheel of the watch. Exactly what the oil is doesn't really matter and is open to holy wars. I use 50w Castrol Syntec. Heavier oil is less apt to get squeezed (squozen?) out from between the coils when the spring is wound, but squoze oil tends to go back when the load is released. Go heavier rather than lighter. Because I'm the dad and I said so. Anyway, you don't want to soak the folded area. If you think you've put enough oil it's probably too much already. You want to leave a minimal (and I mean minimal) film of oil on the spring. If you can see the film as anything other than a hint of a sheen it's too much. Put the outer end of the spring in the fold and slide the strip all the way back to the center. That's all there is to it. (Except remembering to remove the strip...) If you decide you used too much oil just repeat the process with a dry strip, you don't need to clean it again and start over.

    If you buy a new spring it'll probably be in a little holder where it'll supposedly pop right into the barrel. If it has a T end then you get the joy of trying to get the arm of the T to go in the bleep hole. If you have a winder and it has a T end you get the joy, too. T ends are a pain in the - um - ankle. The best way to do it is to use a winder, no question. No coning, no real peril of shooting things across the room, etc. However, reversing the process of removing the spring works just fine, thank you very much. Wash your hands thoroughly to minimize skin oils and acids, don't get too rambunctious in bending things so they'll go in the bleep barrel, and wind the spring back where it came from. Slow and careful wins the race again.

    Sorry for all the blather, but you asked! :) Hope this helps.

    Glen
     
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  3. richiec

    richiec Registered User
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    Feb 24, 2007
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    I wouldn't even clean the old blue steel spring, the white alloy spring for the 12 size Waltham, usually a 2224A, is still available at a reasonable price. White alloy springs. require no lubrication but getting the hole end of the spring to hold on the barrel Is sometimes tricky, requires some modification of the bend of the spring.
     
    Al J likes this.
  4. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

    Dec 7, 2019
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    Thank you both for the advice! And thank you Glen for the very detailed instructions on what to do and not do. Hopefully I’ll get to this today and will let you know how it goes....
     
  5. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

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    Alright, new development. When I went to remove the mainspring, well... see the pictures. I noticed afterwards that there was still quite a bit of it left in the barrel, and was able to remove that as well.

    From what I could tell, it appears the two halves were inserted in opposite directions, though never joined. I believe it had broken beforehand on the “other guy,” who had put it back in place and sold as broken. Go figure....

    I’ll go ahead and order a new one. For the record, though, is this a blue or white steel? It appears blue, but there’s a streak of white in the center. See picture 4.

    Thanks again! Really appreciate your time and help.

    57E865D5-1065-47CD-A2B4-AB32E222DD8B.jpeg 7DF2E8BE-3D3A-4BC7-8621-BF48B7F63313.jpeg 99514809-FD07-45EA-B6A9-10ADFA03ED68.jpeg BB42696C-A481-4B69-96B7-30FE20DC5891.jpeg
     
  6. Skutt50

    Skutt50 Registered User

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    This looks like blue steel type.
     
  7. richiec

    richiec Registered User
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    Order an alloy spring, slightly more expensive but much better in the long run. If it is a model 1894 it is a 2224A
     
  8. Smudgy

    Smudgy Registered User

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    The blue steel springs have the simple coil as yours does. The white steel springs have an S shaped curve where the outer section curves in the o-pposite direction. The blue on the blue steel springs often wears off, but it is easy to tell the difference by the shape.
     
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  9. glenhead

    glenhead Registered User
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    Yup, that's blue. And yup, it's broken. At least it saves you having to ponder it, huh? The blue color is a few-molecules-thick layer, so it scrubs off pretty easily. The silver areas are where the blue wore off.

    Note the end of the broken piece with the hole in it. That little bit of a bend at the end-end is what richiec was talking about. You don't want to kink it, but it'll probably take a bit of "forming and shaping" the end to get it to snag the hook on the inside of the barrel. Note that "forming and shaping" is the correct term for "bending". I was taught that by a Certified Rolex Fixer Dude, so it has to be right, right?

    Let us know how it runs once you finish it, please.

    Glen
     
  10. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

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    #10 Ben S., Apr 17, 2020
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2020
    Ok, update time. I got the mainspring in the mail today, and managed to get it in the barrel — several times. Thankfully the barrel didn’t go to Dryer-Sock-Land... The mainspring winder worked wonderfully. The problem was figuring out how to get the end hole to attach to the barrel, which I think I successfully managed. Hopefully...

    With that said, it runs, howbeit very slowly. And — its making a weird sound. I’ll try to figure out how to upload a video.

    Edit: the system says the video is too large. I’m not sure how to format it. The sound in question sounds like the mainspring is slipping, but I can’t be certain. I assume it’s the end that attaches to the barrel arbor. I think I’ll have to “shape” the end to get it to attach. Would anyone have a picture of the proper shape of the end?

    Thanks!
     
  11. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

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    I forgot to mention: though it sounds like the mainspring is slipping, after the sound completes, I’m able to keep winding it afterwards. Also, I can’t seem to wind it fully, like my other pocket watches. Any thoughts?
     
  12. gmorse

    gmorse Registered User
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    Hi Ben,

    This system doesn't support direct upload of videos, (yet!), so the way to go is to put it up on Youtube or Vimeo or whatever your choice is, and just put a link to it in your post. The video should appear and be accessible then.

    It certainly sounds as though the spring hasn't been properly attached at one end or the other. The centre coil needs to be snug on the arbor and the outer end must engage fully with the hooking point in the barrel wall.

    Regards,

    Graham
     
  13. glenhead

    glenhead Registered User
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    What Graham said. (No surprise there!)

    It's more likely that the outer hole isn't catching. If it's the arbor it won't wind much at all before slipping.

    The bit of a curve/kink at the barrel-hook hole, which the third and fourth pictures show, is almost always a necessity. Once the spring conforms to the curve of the barrel its resilience pushes it away from the wall a bit. It's frequently enough to decouple the hole from the hook. It doesn't take much of a bend, maybe 45 degrees or so, and be careful not to horse on it and snap the spring at the hole. That is supremely annoying. Shape it, don't gronk it.

    Good luck!
    Glen
     
  14. Ben S.

    Ben S. Registered User

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    Well, I’m stumped. The mainspring is definitely connecting to the barrel arbor, and I’m 99% certain it’s connected to the barrel hook. When I open it up, the arbor is still connected, and the hole is over the barrel hook. Every time, I think.

    Also, I am able to wind it more now before it “slips.” It started as three winds then the slipping sound, then four, now five. I’m thinking it’s possible that the new mainspring is too powerful, and the more I wind it the more it conforms to a shape that allows it to work normally. (No, nothing is kinked.) At least that’s my theory for today.

    Any thoughts or suggestions for things to try?
     
  15. Smudgy

    Smudgy Registered User

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    Check the condition of the barrel hook. Sometimes the edge of the barrel hook will round off and when too much tension is applied to the spring the spring hook slips loose, only to catch again when the tension is relieved and the hook will then attach again. Putting the bend on the end of the mainspring is also a good idea as it help reduce the chances of it happening again in the future.
     

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