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Pocketwatch 101 – Learn about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches

How to Wind a Vintage Pocket Watch

How much / how often should I wind my vintage watch?

Pocket watches are typically either stem-wound or key-wound. When you wind a watch, what you are really doing is winding up the mainspring, which sits inside the mainspring barrel (a little metal "can" that keeps the mainspring from exploding like a tangled-up slinky).

Stem-wind Watch

On a stem-wind watch, the watch is wound by turning the winding crown, almost always in a clockwise direction. The winding wheel is usually equipped with a ratcheting mechanism, so the watch only winds in one direction; the other direction is just "ratcheting back" to make it easier to wind. If you are right-handed, you hold the watch in your left hand and wind with the right. The forward stroke of your thumb is the winding stroke.

If you turn the winding knob and feel or hear any kind of grinding noise then STOP WINDING. This means that something in the winding mechanism is not engaging properly and the watch needs to be professionally serviced. There are several wheels and gears involved in winding the watch, and damage to any one of them can cause rough winding. Best bet is to have the watch looked at because continued forced winding is almost guaranteed to cause damage.

Left: Hamilton stem-wind watch; Right: Waltham 'side-winder' stem-wind watch

Left: Hamilton stem-wind watch; Right: Waltham "side-winder" stem-wind watch

Key-wind Watch

On a key-wind watch, you wind the mainspring by turning a key which usually fits through a hole in the back inner-lid of the watch case (see photo). The key is cut with a square hole in the end, which fits over a square winding arbor in the watch. Turning the key then winds the mainspring. Key-wind direction can be either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on the watch, but is usually clockwise. Start by trying to turn the key gently in the clockwise direction. If it turns easily against the spring tension and you hear or feel the ratchet clicking, then you're turning the correct direction. If you just encounter resistance, or if it feels like something is slipping, then you're probably trying to turn the wrong direction.

If you have large hands, you may find it easier to hold the key and turn the watch. If you don't know what size key your watch requires, you can refer to our table of pocket watch key sizes.

Illustration of winding Waltham P. S. Bartlett key-wind watch in coin-silver case

Illustration of winding Waltham P. S. Bartlett key-wind watch in coin-silver case

Common Winding Problems

If you are trying to wind your watch and can't, there could be several reasons. If the winding crown (or key) turns forever and you never build up any mainspring tension, then your mainspring is very likely broken (or missing). If the winding crown (or key) won't turn in either direction, then the watch is probably fully wound and won't run because of some other problem. There is really no such thing as an over-wound watch. If the watch is fully wound and it doesn't run, it's because there's something wrong with it. Blaming the problem on an over-wound mainspring would be like saying your car won't run because you have too much gas in your tank.

If the hole in your case doesn't line up with the winding square in the key-wind movement, it's because your watch is not in its correct case. There's nothing that can be done to make the holes line up (no, you really can't drill new ones). You would have to find a correct case to fit your particular movement, which can be a difficult task.

If you have a key-wind watch and don't have a key, you can probably get one from a local watchmaker or jeweler. You must get the correct size to fit the watch, though, so it's best if the person has the watch and can choose the best fit. Also be aware that on a key-wind/key-set watch, you may need the same or a different key to wind and set the watch.

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How much and how often to wind your vintage pocket watch?

A mechanical pocket watch should be able to run for at least 24-28 hours on a full wind of the mainspring... 30 hours would be better! Some watches were capable of much longer run-times, 36 to 48 hours isn't uncommon for higher-grade watches and some models, like the Illinois Bunn Special "Motor Barrel" could run as long as 60 hours.

Longer run times were achieved by making a more efficient, low-friction movement which meant the watch could run on less mainspring power. Less power meant that a thinner mainspring could be used, which meant that a longer mainspring could fit into the same size mainspring barrel.

A vintage pocket watch should be wound once a day if in regular service. It's a good idea to get in the habit of winding your watch at about the same time each day... say first thing in the morning. This contributes to consistent timekeeping and prepares the watch for the bumps and bangs that it will encounter during everyday use.

When you wind the watch, wind it all the way until it doesn't wind anymore. Obviously, you don't want to use brute force or a pair of pliers to crank it past the stopping point or you'll break something, but you don't have to be afraid of breaking your mainspring if you're hand-winding your watch. You'd be surprised how many people we run into who are reluctant to wind their watches all the way, then they wonder why the watch stops after only a few hours. If you wind it, it will run!

Pocket watches with winding-indicators (up-down indicator)

Some of the highest quality pocketwatches were equipped with a "wind-indicator" also called an "up-down indicator". The up-down indicator is a small dial indicating the amount of "power reserve" left in the wound mainspring. If you are fortunate enough to have a winding-indicator watch, then you should know how to properly use it. Most up-down indicators have a scale that points to zero when the watch is fully wound and then gradually indicates to a higher number as the watch runs down. This can be thought of as the number of hours that have elapsed since the watch was last wound.

If you do have a wind-indicator watch, you should always stop winding when the needle on the indicator reaches zero. On most watches, it's possible to wind a little past the zero mark, but the spring was "set-up" to provide the best time-keeping by stopping at zero. Similarly, you should wind the watch before it drops below the 30 mark to keep it operating in the "middle of the mainspring".

Up-down indicator watches are somewhat rare and are highly-prized by collectors. We always have customers looking for wind-indicator watches, so please contact us if you have an up-down pocketwatch you would like to sell.

Waltham pocket watch with winding-indicator (up-down indicator). This particular model is a
23-jewel Vanguard, issued by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics.