How to clean antique pocket watches

Written by rob wagner
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Properly cleaning antique pocket watches is a tricky, laborious task. It's more about disassembly than cleaning. It means completely disassembling the watch's movement, which is the mechanism inside the case that operates the timepiece, with precision tools. First-timers are urged to practice on a watch they don't mind ruining. The task can appear daunting, but once the novice recognises each part of the pocket watch movement and masters use of the tools, the cleaning process becomes easier.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Clean flat table
  • Precision screwdriver set
  • Parts tray
  • Tweezers
  • Blunt blade
  • Naphta, an element of lighter fluid
  • Fine brush
  • Toothpicks
  • Watch oil and oiler
  • Jeweller's loupe
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Shot glasses
  • Watch hands remover and hands grabber
  • Lintless, absorbent paper

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  1. 1

    Pry open the snap case back of an antique pocket watch using a blunt blade. If the watch has a screw-down case back, lay it face down in the palm of your hand and use the other hand to unscrew it counterclockwise, according to

  2. 2

    Unwind the pocket watch by letting down the mainspring, a ribbon of tightly rolled steel inside the mainspring barrel. Rotate the crown at 12 o'clock a few clicks to identify the metal stopper that passes over the mainspring gear. Hold the crown and use a toothpick to push aside the stopper to disengage it from the gears. The watch will unwind. Use a screwdriver to remove the movement by unscrewing two screws fastening it at the edge of the case. Place all parts during the entire removal process into the parts tray.

  3. 3

    Use the watch hands remover to hold the hands over the hour, minutes and seconds post. The hands remover holds the hands in place without damaging the post. Use the hands-grabbing tool by setting its feet on the dial and gently pull each hand separately from the post. Use a screwdriver to remove the screws at the edge of the dial that fastens it to the movement.

  4. 4

    Use the tweezers to slide off the hour wheel, a brass gear under the dial's centre. Use the needle nose pliers to remove the cannon pinion, a smaller gear on a small shaft. Use a screwdriver to remove the bridge, the flat metal sheet that houses the mainspring and gears. Unscrew the balance wheel that was underneath the bridge. The balance wheel contains a coiled spring, or hairspring, and is held in place by another bridge, or balance cock. Under the balance wheel is the T-shaped balance fork. Remove it with a screwdriver. Remove the jewels, often coloured glasslike nuggets, from their holes on the bridges.

  5. 5

    Soak all parts, except the mainspring, in naphta. Use the brush to gently scrub parts. Simply brush the mainspring. Soaking it will cause rust. Place parts on lintless paper to dry. Use a tiny portion of oil only to lubricate the jewel holes on the bridges. Once all parts are cleaned and dried, install the parts in reverse order of their removal.

Tips and warnings

  • Don't skimp on purchasing correct tools. Non-precision tools will likely ruin the watch.
  • Never force or pry anything open.

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