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Watch Service

Watches that are carried daily need to be cleaned and oiled at regular intervals. As a guideline, the maintenance programs required for watches used in railroad time service were designed to ensure that watches received sufficient attention for them to keep time reliably for decades under difficult conditions. The rules varied, but requirements for cleaning on a basis of once every year and a half were typical for a railroad watch at the turn of the century. By the mid-1920’s this was extended to two year intervals.

Service Needs in the Gay Nineties

The “Sears, Roebuck and Co., Inc. Catalogue No. 104,” Chicago, IL, 1897, reprinted by Chelsea House, Philadelphia, PA, 1968 had this to say about the need to have watches serviced on page 371:

“We Guarantee for Five Years All the movements sold by us. This does not refer to the life of the movement, but that we will for five years from date of purchase, correct free of charge any fault which may occur from defective material or workmanship. Any well made movement will run a lifetime if properly cared for.
“Remember That your watch should not run longer than one and one-half years without having the old oil cleaned off and fresh oil supplied. This must be done at the expense of the purchaser.
“The balance wheel of all modern watches makes 18,000 beats or revolutions per hour; 432,000 per day, or 157,788,000 per year. An engine or sewing machine will be oiled several times per day, but we have known people to carry a watch for ten years without having it cleaned or fresh oil applied.
“Usually, a movement thus treated is of no value, being entirely worn out. Take good care of your watch if you wish it to perform its duty properly, for it is a very delicate machine. Our charge for cleaning and oiling is 75 cents. The regular retail price is $1.50.”

Service Today

Watch cleaning and oiling costs a bit more today than it did a hundred years ago, but the watchmaker, a very skilled person, needs to be able to make a decent living. Thus, the cleaning and oiling cost reflects that fact today, perhaps more than it did back then. One message board thread addresses the wide range of costs, items covered by the service and expectations of different collectors in some detail. The quality and cost of watch service has always been an issue. Also, it may be difficult to find a good watchmaker locally and the watch may have to be sent off for service. One might think that this is a relatively recent problem, but it was an issue (albeit, a lesser issue) following World War I.

The proper oiling of a watch requires knowledge, skill and considerable care. This is explained in detail in a 1917 article on the subject. Although today's oils are better than those available almost a hundred years ago, the principles discussed in the article remain the same.

Keeping Time After Service

After being serviced, a watch may gain or lose a little bit, requiring very minor fine-tuning of the regulator. This is because each person's daily activities are different and this can affect the watch's rate. Here's what Hamilton had to say on the subject in literature distributed to its dealers:

The average watch collector should know enough about watches to be able to regulate their watches by themselves. This is especially useful if one doesn't live reasonably close to the person who services their watches. Those who are not sure how to do so may benefit from the "Regulating A Watch" section of the Encyclopedia article on the Pocket Watch Regulator.

Here's one more thought on the subject of the watch regulator. When a watch is properly cleaned, oiled and serviced, the regulator indicator ought to be within the center 50% of its total range when the watch is keeping accurate time. Actually, it should be in a narrower portion in the center, but 50% allows for some variation of the quality of service without considering the cost of that service. If the regulator has to be positioned outside of the center 50% of its range to obtain accurate time, then it is an indication that either the watch needs cleaning and oiling, or that something is wrong with the watch. If it comes back from being serviced with the regulator outside of the center 50% of its range, it means that the person doing the service has not found, or corrected, one or more problems.

Additional Information

Also, see more Frequently Asked Questions on the Pocket Watch Site.

More information is available in the Encyclopedia articles on Setting Watch Hands and How To Open A Pocket Watch Case.

Use and Care of a Vintage Watch

Also, Ed Ueberall, of The Escapement has put together some notes on the Use And Care of Your Vintage Watch that may be helpful.

Service Frequency

If the watch is run continually, a cleaning and oiling is needed every 3-5 years. If you're only going to wear your watch occasionally, this ought to be done once at the onset and about every ten years thereafter. If you're not going to carry it (or run it), don't bother getting it serviced. Many of the watches that are kept by collectors (that aren't run) haven't been cleaned and oiled in 20 or 30 years or more.

Cheap vs. Proper Service

Don Dahlberg posted the following on the NAWCC Pocket Watch Message Board on May 28, 2006

It may be helpful to read the Encyclopedia article on Choosing a Pocket Watch Repair Person.

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Current Discussion: Main discussion

  1. nathan2307

    nathan2307 Registered User

    Apr 20, 2005
    If a watch is adjusted to positions at the factory is it still 100 yrs later? Or, does the watch need to be "readjusted" periodically?
  2. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Silver Member

    Aug 26, 2000
  3. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Silver Member

    Aug 26, 2000