The Ultimate Guide to Mechanical Watches

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There are many people in the world who absolutely adore watches. I’m one of them, but my tastes aren’t super expensive.

They collect them and they (hopefully) wear them. Some like a specific brand or style, while others enjoy variety.

Among the options you have in buying a watch is a mechanical version. There’s something rustic about them. It makes me think of a grandfather’s treasured pocket watch, with all the charm and memories that image radiates.

What is a “Mechanical Watch”?

If you’ve never seen or heard about mechanical watches, you’re in for a treat.

Mechanical Watches have mechanisms inside that measure time’s passage. The key “engine” in a mechanical watch is the mainspring which you have to wind periodically.

That winding moves through gears, a balance wheel, and arrives at an escarpment that releases the what’s movement slowly and evenly. It is the escarpment of a mechanical watch that creates the infamous ticking!

A brief history of mechanical watches

In the 15th century, spring powered clocks appeared. The mechanical watch evolved from those designs in smaller forms around the 17th century. And for those of you who were born after 1970, before that time all watches were mechanical.

The first mechanical watches weren’t very precise. Some varied as much as 15 minutes daily.

Industrialization allowed for improvements in the manufacturing process for mechanical watches.

One company stood out in this revolution, the Waltham Watch Company. They improved mechanical watches so much that they won a gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

Fast forward and you’ll find mechanical watches went out of style. Automatic watches, which need no winding, replaced them. Quartz movement and battery operation became the norm, no matter the exterior design.

Heck, if you’re just looking for for telling time, your cell phone can handle that. But you know we don’t wear watches to tell time anymore.

Why Mechanical Watches are better?

A well-made mechanical watch will last a very long time when treated properly.

These were treasured items, not something for idle disposal. By comparison, more modern designs have a level of planned obsolescence in them, but for the very expensive models.

We’re not talking about your old Casio calculator watch!

While you have to wind your mechanical watch, there’s no buying batteries (and no worries of that battery dying at the most inopportune time). The quartz watch will eventually get to the point where it’s less expensive to replace it than to fix.

Of course, as I pointed out before, smart phones are slowly replacing wristwatches too. With the mechanical watch, you have a piece of artistry and history that, over time, can become a valuable keepsake for your family.

Why people like Mechanical Watches

They really are fascinating. The craftsmanship that goes into mechanical watches and the engineering is nothing less than meticulous.

Watchmaking is an art, and a mechanical watch can be as unique as any painting you encounter.

Think about something:

How often do you look at your quartz watch just because you love it and it’s beautiful? Probably not frequently unless you have something fancy. With the mechanical watch, just the opposite holds true. Looking at one of these is the kind of thing I could find amazing every day.

You can show it to people who have never heard of one and observe the wonder in their faces. Modern makers of mechanical watches are masters of their craft and honor tried-n-true techniques while also trying to innovate exterior designs and features.

Here are some of the top reasons why mechanical watches are great:

Durability

People also like mechanical watches because they’re long-lasting and strong.

Like a good cast iron pan, this wonder is a value-added purchase. Yes, you will need to service it periodically, just like re-seasoning that pan from time to time. If you do, several centuries later, your watch has become a living heirloom.

There are very few watch enthusiasts that do not have at least one mechanical watch in their treasure trove. They know that fine mechanical watches withstand the test of time.

You can buy with confidence.

Investment

Anything created with great craftsmanship tends to increase in value over the years.

That means that the money you put into your mechanical watch will rarely go to waste (unless you lose it). Meanwhile, the money you spent on that superstore watch goes out the window when it breaks beyond reasonable repair.

Look at some vintage watches. The price tags on many of these creations have been going up consistently for years. So while you ponder the cost for your mechanical watch, remember it’s taken many man-hours assembling hundreds of little pieces by hand to reach the display case.

And there is a good chance the appraised value will improve over time.

Refinement

Put a well-made mechanical watch side by side with several mid-line quartz watches and really there’s no comparison.

One feature I love are the see-through backs on many of these, where you can witness for yourself their intricate, graceful movements.

How do Mechanical Watches work?

I have already shared with you a little of the innards of a mechanical watch’s magic, but I can dig a little deeper for watch buffs and tinkerers.

Power-source

At the foundation of the watch, you have energy. This is the power source the watch needs to work. For the mechanical watch, that’s a winding gear attached to a main spring and barrel wheel. As the mainspring unwinds over time, the barrel rotates, moving power forward.

Wheels & Escapement

The second important element in a mechanical watch is the wheels. These determine the speed of the mainspring as well as moving the minute and hour hands of the watch. From here, we move on to the escapement which keeps everything regulated.

It is worth noting that there is such a thing as an “automated” mechanical watch. This timepiece is wound by the owner’s wrist and arm movement throughout the day. These too, however, often need time adjustments.

What are Mechanical Watches powered by?

The answer to this question is simple on the surface: the owner powers the watch when they wind it up.

That motion creates a force that goes through gears, the balance wheel, and the weighted wheel. The main spring houses the “energy” releasing it slowly as it unwinds. Each rotation of the wheel train is one beat, akin to a heart rate that manifests with a ticking sound.

On average, a mechanical watch ticks at six beats per second, translating into a whopping 21,600 beats per hour (whew!).

How do Mechanical Watches keep accurate time?

When you wind a mechanical watch properly, it powers a weighted wheel that moves back and forth at a constant rate.

In turn, when the balance wheel swings, it moves the hands of the watch forward. True, a mechanical watch (particularly older ones) will not keep time as accurately as quartz technology, but they come close.

What is considered “accurate time” for Mechanical Watches?

While the answer to that question depends heavily on the watchmaker, the best mechanical watches may lose up to 10 seconds a day. Note too that if the owner does not keep this watch wound properly, it will lose time more readily.

Many manufacturers now publish their performance variances, which you can review before shopping more seriously.

How many days or years do Mechanical Watches run?

From a daily perspective, a wound mechanical watch will only run for 1-2 days if you forget to wind it. That winding process requires a little finesse. The watch should be off your wrist, and care should be taken against over-winding the watch. When you feel resistance, stop.

It’s that simple.

It’s recommended that you wind your watch once a day. Make it into your routine, maybe while reading the news or having coffee.

This habit keeps the watch more accurate regularly.

Over the long haul, a well-loved mechanical watch should last for years and years (often generations). Certainly it may show some signs of wear like minor scratches, but many of those can be fixed with a little polish and a soft cloth. You can get inexpensive watch polishing kits that include suitable clothes.

And remember to keep your watch clean to improve longevity. If you notice dirt or soil, carefully clean it up with a toothbrush and a drop of water.

Some good tips on avoiding surface damage to your watch include keeping it away from sunscreen, harsh cleaning supplies, perfume, and insect repellent.

What tolerances are Mechanical Watches manufactured to?

In the watch world, the term tolerance refers to the maximum amount of seconds a day your watch may gain or lose.

So if a timepiece you’re looking at says it has a tolerance of -4/+6 it means your watch may gain as much as six seconds a day or lose as much as four a day. In most cases, the tolerance ratings listed are at the outer edges of the deviations.

Your mechanical watch probably won’t show that much discrepancy.

If your mechanical watch has a tolerance of -20/+20 that’s the base of acceptability. One that shows a tolerance of -7/+7 is superior in terms of performance. All these numbers, however, don’t always take into consideration other factors influencing the accuracy of your timepiece.

The obvious ingredients in the accuracy mix are the watch’s design and the quality of materials. Then there’s how you wind your watch.

With automatic mechanical watches gravity can also create fluctuation (we’ll get to this below!).

How much do you have to wind Mechanical Watches?

Your watch works most effectively when the mainspring is just above half tension. That means that winding it up once a day should do the trick. Just take the winding crown and move it clockwise in a smooth, even motion.

Backwards motion will not wind your watch.

The average mechanical watch needs about 20 full turns before you notice the crown stops. Do not endeavor to wind any more at this point.

Mind you, if you don’t plan on wearing your watch for several days, it’s ok to let it just wind out. You can reset it later.

How does gravity affect Mechanical Watches?

Earlier, I mentioned a bit about gravity and how it impacts watch accuracy.

Gravity affects the escapement, which is your accuracy and energy regulator. So, if you leave your watch in one position for too long, it won’t be as accurate as it is when you wear it.

Newer Mechanical Watches have adjusted for this issue with various internals like a power reserve that measures tension and stores energy up to a week keeping it on track.

When & where to service Mechanical Watches

When to get your Mechanical Watch serviced

You can ask ten people how often to get a mechanical watch serviced, and you will probably get at least four different answers. The mid-line for regular servicing seems to be five years, with some saying only three and others saying to wait 10 years.

When you do get servicing, your watch gets cleaned, oiled, and inspected for any signs of trouble.

It is possible for you to learn how to service your own watch if you have the right implements. However, I prefer to leave this in the hands of an expert who can also guarantee their workmanship.

Remember the pieces in your watch wear over time, some may even need replacement. Knowing how to find the right pieces is part of a service person’s job. First, they take the watch completely apart, and when done it has to go back together the right way!

Where do you go to get your Mechanical Watch serviced?

Your best bet for servicing your mechanical watch is with a local Jeweler.

Call them and ask about their experience with your particular type of timepiece. Some jewelers have bench certified employees for specific brands and complicated mechanisms. You can also check with online watch collectors in your area, or just network locally with business people, coworkers and friends.

Take your time. You want to find the right establishment.

A couple of things to remember when taking your watch for servicing is that it isn’t always a fast or cheap visit. Many places give an estimate of a month for in-house work. If the watch needs to be sent out, that can increase the time by several more months.

Much here depends on the type of watch, the materials, and whatever damage exists.

Nonetheless, the servicing company should provide you with an estimate for the work, and information on how they protect your watch if it has to be sent out, and their warranty before they begin.

If they find unexpected issues, the company should call you before proceeding further, providing any changes in costs and potential concerns about whether the watch will keep running effectively once the work is complete.

Conclusion

I hope this guide to all things Mechanical Watches has been helpful for you! Whether you’re a casual or serious watch fan, a Mechanical one will serve you well and keep you looking stylish for years.

Looking for more info on some great watches? Check out my posts on choosing a great skeleton watch with exposed gears, or my favorite casual watches!

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