How to Clean a Watch Movement in Five Easy Steps

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Just as car aficionados can spend hours tweaking every little detail about their cars to make sure they run at peak performance and last longer, the same holds true for vintage watch owners and their models. If you want it to last long enough for it to reach “vintage” status, you need to subject it to regular care, and that includes cleaning watch movement.

However, if you’re new to the world of vintage watches or are simply not an expert, the prospect of performing maintenance on your own watch can seem a bit daunting. Sure, you can pay a professional to do it for you, but this can add up over time.

Thankfully, cleaning a watch movement doesn’t have to be a nightmare. On the contrary, you can save money on professional cleanings by cleaning your watch movements on your own in five easy steps.

1. Soaking the Parts

First thing’s first – to clean your parts properly, you’ll have to soak them. At the same time, you obviously need to be careful about this. Drowning watch parts isn’t exactly what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he entitled the part of his landmark poem “The Waste Land” “Death By Water,” but improperly washing your watch parts will result in that nonetheless.

This will involve soaking your watches in a cleaning fluid. You should never skimp on the oils and lubricating agents used for the processes described below. Just as you wouldn’t fill a top of the line sports car with subpar fuel, you don’t want to use substandard cleaning oil on parts for a luxury watch. Doing so can result in the watch not being cleaned entirely or properly, potentially leaving dust and dirt behind, which in turn can cause gear grinding.

You’ll need to let your parts soak for a few minutes. Distilled water and detergent is fine at this stage, though other fluids will be necessary later on in the process. You don’t want to use tap water if you can help it as it can contain some of the very contaminants that you are trying to clean from the parts. In addition, you’ll want to be careful not to use too much detergent, just like tap water when used in excess, it can leave residue behind.

You should ideally use about one to two drops’ worth of cleaning fluid for every 100 ml of water.

Once you have done this, it’s time to start ridding the watch of particulates. To do this, you’ll want to make use of a small paintbrush, ultrasonic cleaner. You don’t want your parts accidentally going down the drain. It may, therefore, be helpful to place the parts in a sieve or filter that will allow fluid to wash over them and out again while leaving the parts undisturbed when the time comes to drain the container.

Larger parts should be loaded into your watery cleaning solution before smaller, more delicate ones.

Warm water typically does a better job of cleaning away particulates than cold water.

2. Time for Another Cleaning Fluid

Once this initial washup is complete, it’s time to proceed to a more in-depth approach.

The second cleaning fluid you use should be something like 99.9% isopropyl alcohol, as it is particularly good at dissolving oils and grease that may still be present after Step 1.

While you don’t need to dry the parts rigorously at this stage, you’ll probably want to blot them with a paper towel or something similar so as to remove any excess residue that may still be present.

The parts should remain submerged in this cleaning agent for about 10 minutes, during which time you should stir the surface lightly so as to enhance the effect.

It’s also at this stage that you’ll likely want to employ some pegwood to clean some of the holes in your parts. The pegwood should be sharpened at the end before being placed into the pivot holes and rotated so as to remove contaminants that may have built up in this area. You may need to repeat this several times to make sure you get rid of everything.

3. Yet Another Cleaning Fluid Dip

The third time’s the charm here, as you’ll once again want to submerge your parts in another cleaning fluid – either the 99.9% isopropyl alcohol again or a lighter fluid for a bit of variety and contrast. While the 99.9% isopropyl alcohol is a good option insofar as it shouldn’t leave any residue on the parts, using lighter fluids can be susceptible to this.

By this point, your parts should be basically clean. As such, this stage is essential to ensure that every last particulate is eliminated before you start drying the parts and putting them back in your watch.

You may want to use tweezers when transferring the parts from one solution to another to make sure they don’t accidentally slip.

Once again, you’ll want to soak your parts for about 5 to 10 minutes, and once more, you’ll want to lightly blot the parts with a towel.

4. Drying Your Parts

By this point, your parts should be absolutely clean, so it is now time to dry them. You have probably blotted your parts throughout the past couple steps, but this is a fuller drying.

When drying the parts, it’s important to make sure they are absolutely dry, so you’ll want to use something such as a blow dryer. That said, you’ll naturally need to be extremely careful not to accidentally have it on too high of a setting, lest it blow the parts everywhere. For this reason you’ll also want to make sure you blow dry the parts one at a time.

Check the part one last time after drying it to make sure that it’s totally clean, and then place it beneath a cover to keep it safe from dust.

If parts aren’t totally clean yet, don’t just put them in your watch. Switch out the cleaning fluids you’ve been using for new ones, and soak them for a few minutes while stirring the solution once more.

5. Cleaning Extra Delicate Parts

Your watch will likely have a pallet fork or other parts that are maintained through things such as shellac, which can be dissolved when submerged in solvents such as ethanol. These parts are extremely delicate, and so you’ll need to make use of light fluid and be extremely careful when handling and cleaning them.

Be careful when removing them, as they can also become deformed if you remove the balance assembly without properly supporting both the balance bridge and wheel. This is due to the fact that the cleaning fluid’s surface tension will weigh heavily on the balance wheel and thus cause it to stretch.

Repeat this method for any other extremely delicate parts that may be present in the watch.

Cleaning and drying the parts in your watch is essential for ensuring your watch works properly. Working with such tiny parts can seem daunting at first, and you’ll want to take care every step of the way. As long as you exercise the proper amount of care while following these steps, however, you should be able to clean your parts and keep your watch working for years to come.