Setting Watch Hands

From the very beginnings of watches, a means was necessary to set them to what was believed to be the correct time. At first, the common, ordinary finger was used. Then, as watches got smaller and the hands became more fragile, various methods were developed to set them. The most common methods used on American watches are listed below.


Key Set

Until the mid-1870s and into the 1880s, most American watches were key-set. This meant that a watch key (usually the same one used to wind the watch - see the Message Board thread entitled "Pocket Watch Key Sizes" for assistance in determining the key size for a specific make and model American watch) was used, fitting it over a square shaft, to change to positions of the hands. Many key-set watches have a square setting stud on the center post which supports the minute hand. To set the watch, the bezel (the metal ring that holds the crystal - the glass) is opened and the watch key is fit to the setting stud and turned, setting the hands. Unfortunately, the frequent (in terms of the life of a watch) opening of the bezel lead to crystal breakage and worse, careless fitting of the key to the setting stud occasionally lead to the slipping of the key, thus causing dial damage.

A number of watch designs avoided this problem by arranging for the hands to be set from the rear of the movement. This resulted in a second hole in the cuvette (the inner cover over the movement, under the back of the case), the first being the hole thorough which to wind the watch. Although this increased the access for dust and dirt, it did reduce wear and tear on the dial.

Key Sizes

Key sizes for key-wound, key-set watches are expressed as a number from 1 to 12, with #1 being the largest, see Barry Parker's Key No. vs. Size Table, below. Once the size is known, you can then contact the material suppliers listed below. If you lack a micrometer or caliper with which to measure the stud, measure as best you can with an precision ruler. Fortunately, the keys are inexpensive enough that you can get an assortment of five or six in the neighborhood of your measurement. Or, a whole set of 12 is priced at $20 or less at several of the suppliers.

Barry Parker's Key No. vs. Size Table


Key No.mmInches
#11.850.0728
#21.750.0689
#31.680.0661
#41.610.0634
#51.540.0606
#61.470.0579
#71.380.0543
#81.290.0508
#91.190.0469
#101.10.0433
#111.00.0394
#120.90.0354

Watch Material Dealers

Watch Materials are available from:

Brian Cavanaugh, pwpartsetc@pwatch.com
Bryan Eyring, bdeyring@hotmail.com
Jules Borel (search for the keyword "key")
Dashto
Otto Frei
Uncle Larry's Watch Shop

If the desired item cannot be found on a dealer's website, contact them and ask about it.

Lever Set

Lever-set means that you have to pull out a lever to allow the crown (winding knob) to engage the hands to set them. Starting just around the 1906-1908 period, it was generally required that watches used in railroad time service be lever-set. This was to prevent the inadvertent changing of the time while winding a watch. There were some early variations on the lever-setting operation, but well over 99% of American-made watches operate as described below.

On an open-face watch, the lever is located under the bezel (the metal ring that holds the crystal). Typically, for open-face watches, the lever is at the 6 minute position for a 16-size watch, although There Are Exceptions, and the 11 minute position for an 18-size watch. The bezel may screw off to expose the lever. Or, if the case has hinges, there should be a raised lip, just clockwise of the pendant, with which to pry the bezel open on its hinge. For most hunting-case watches, the lever protrudes from the bezel at the 21 minute position for a 16-size watch and the 27 minute position for an 18-size watch.

To set the time, the lever is pulled out, parallel to the surface of the dial. Usually, people hold the watch in their left hand and use their right thumbnail to catch the lever's little tab and pull it out. Be careful not to catch the edge of the dial with your thumbnail, dials get chipped that way. Pocketwatcher's website has some good instructions for Setting A Lever Set Watch.

Pendant Set

Pendant-set means that you pull out the crown (winding knob) to engage it to the hands to set them. Early pendant setting arrangements were patented, making it difficult for some watch companies to market pendant-set watches without paying royalties (which put them at a cost disavantage). The Hampden Watch Co. touched on the subject in a 1900 Ad Touting Lever-set Watches which described the payment of royalties to patent holders and that the Supreme Court ("...the highest court in the United States...") declared pendant-set patents invalid.

Other Setting Means: Pin-Set

Probably less than 0.1% of the jeweled American-made watches, some of the earlier non-key-set ones, were fitted with a setting means other than the those described above (key-set, lever-set and pendant-set). Of those, pin-set (also known as nail-set) was the most prevalent. A good example of these being the setting means used on Waltham watches, specifically the model 70 Crescent St. grade. There may have been other setting means used in very, very small quantities.


Jon Hanson said:
MORE incorrect information:

Here are the basics: Key set (front or back set), pull set (stem), slide set (1868 model Waltham) lever set (various positions), button set, nail set and pin set, plus some oddities. Also, there is Abbott's set (lever) which is part of the Abbott's Stem Wind attachment and other hand made setting arrangements either irregular or in odd places.

Winding and Setting Your Watch

Pocketwatcher's website has instructions for Winding & Setting Your Watch. When to wind a watch has been the subject of much debate. Perhaps the best answer has been given by the British Clock and Watch Makers' Guild.

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