Pocketwatch 101™ – Learn about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches
Pocket Watch Dial Attachment
How Pocketwatch Dials are Attached to the Watch Movement
There are several different methods that are commonly used to attach a watch dial to the movement. This article will examine the most commonly encountered methods.
Dial Feet with Screws
Most vintage pocket watch dials are attached to the movement with "dial-feet". The dial-foot is a small metal post that extends from the back of the dial and fits into a hole in the watch movement near the rim. There are usually small screws in the rim of the movement plate that tighten against the dial-feet to hold the dial securely in place. Most American pocket watches used three dial feet, while most Swiss or European watches used two (or sometimes four) dial feet. Over-tightening the dial screws is one of the causes of cracks or chips in an enamel dial.
Some early E. Howard pocket watches used a different form of dial-feet and screws to attach the dial. On these watches, the screw is inserted through holes in the movement plate, from the back... not from the rim, and thread into tapped holes in the dial feet. These watches usually only use 2 screws that hold the dial in place.
Dial Feet with Taper Pins
Older pocket watches (pre-1900) sometimes used dial feet with brass taper-pins instead of screws. The dial-foot has a small hole through it, and a brass taper-pin is pressed into the hole to hold the dial in position.
Replacing Damaged Pocket Watch Dials
If you're looking for a replacement dial to fit your watch, you must first determine your dial's diameter and the dial feet positions so you know what kind of replacement dial will fit your watch. When measuring the position of dial feet, it's common to name their positions by the minute marks on the watch dial. By looking at the watch dial from the side, it's possible to line up the dial-foot with the corresponding minute marker. For example, an 18-size Waltham dial may have dial feet at the 17, 37 and 54 minute marks. Most American pocket watch dials used 3 dial-feet, but some used 4 dial feet as shown below. Many Swiss watches used 2 dial-feet.
There are no modern manufacturers of old-style enamel pocket watch dials, so finding a replacement dial to fit a particular watch can be very difficult. At Renaissance Watch Repair, we have hundreds of used and new old-stock pocket watch dials in our inventory, but that's only a tiny fraction of the huge number of different dial sizes, styles and markings that were produced.
Broken Dial Feet
It's not uncommon to find a dial that won't hold securely to the watch because one or more dial-feet have broken off. If the dial is metal, a new dial-foot can sometimes be soldered in place, though this also carries the risk that it can produce a burned or discolored spot on the dial if it gets too hot during soldering. Dial feet on metal dials can usually be repaired successfully.
We've had limited success re-soldering dial feet on enamel dials, as the backing enamel has to be ground away to expose the underlying copper. Most enamel dials will hold with 2 good dial feet, but solid attachment with 3 dial feet is always preferred.
In cases where it isn't practical or possible to repair the a broken dial-foot, small adhesive "dial-dots" may be used to hold the dial in place. These double-sided adhesive dots can be placed in one or two spots near the broken dial foot and will hold the dial quite securely. Care must be taken to ensure that the dial-dot doesn't interfere with any portion of the watch mechanism, of couse. Note that dial dots are not a good solution when more than one dial-foot is broken, because they provide no resistance to lateral movement of the dial as dial-feet do. Even a small lateral movement of the dial can cause the dial center to rub against the center arbor or the seconds arbor. As a result, dial-dots are only a good option when a single dial-foot is missing.
Dial dots wouldn't be considered a "proper" repair for a high-grade restoration, and we would rather restore the broken dial-foot when it's practical to do so. But they can offer a reasonable and economical solution for many vintage watch repairs, are completely removable, and do no harm to the watch when used properly.
Some 20th century metal dial (notably Keystone-Howard Series VII) attached to the movement with a friction fit of the rim of the dial over the lip of the movement main plate. These dials can be difficult to remove from the movement, are often quite difficult to reinstall, and often show signs of damage where they have been roughly pried off the watch in the past.