How to Maintain a Mechanical Watch
Simple rules for keeping your timepiece ticking
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
So you decided to go old school and buy a mechanical watch—not just one with hands and a dial but one that’s powered by a coiled spring and gear train instead of a battery. Congratulations, you’ve got one of the few man-made objects that’s been built the same way for the past 200 years and will keep running for the next 200—but only if you take care of it. I’ve compiled a few pointers for keeping that watch running well and looking good, so you can pass it down one day after it accompanies you on all of your adventures.
One of the most satisfying things about owning a mechanical watch is that it requires your interaction in order for it to function. Unlike a quartz watch, a mechanical timepiece doesn’t get its energy from a battery. Instead, the power that drives the hands around the dial comes from the unwinding of a tightly coiled flat spring that is meshed with a train of gears. This “mainspring” requires regular winding, which, if you bought an automatic, will be wound up as long as it’s on your wrist (and you move every now and then). If it’s a hand-wound watch, or an automatic-winding watch that has been sitting on your dresser for a few days, you simply need to spin the crown a couple dozen times a day, which is an oddly gratifying chore.
While winding a watch is a simple process, there are a couple things to be aware of. First of all, don’t wind it on your wrist: the angle can be awkward and put lateral stress on the winding stem. Second, if it's a hand-wound watch, don’t overwind it. When it feels like you can’t turn the crown anymore, don’t. At that point, it’s good to go.
Setting the watch is equally as simple: pull out the crown and spin the hands to the desired time. If it has a date mechanism, there’s a slight caveat: avoid adjusting the date between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., since that’s when the mechanism that automatically advances the date is engaged, and forcing it can break delicate components.
Though mechanical watches may seem fragile, they’re actually remarkably rugged, a fact that has been proven out on countless battlefields, mountain peaks, and coral reefs for the past hundred years or so. However, watches do have a few enemies, namely shock, magnets, and moisture. Wrenching on your truck or splitting wood are best avoided while wearing a mechanical watch. You should also avoid setting your watch on devices containing strong magnets, such as the TV, your laptop, or stereo speakers, as this can magnetize the movement and set your watch running too fast. If this happens, take it to a local watchmaker or jeweler, who can quickly demagnetize it.
Your watch is likely rated for some measure of water resistance, which is plenty for almost anything you could get into. But before you go dive the Andrea Doria, make sure that your watch’s crown is pushed in all the way. Most dive watches have crowns that screw down tight to the case for an extra measure of safety. A 30- or 50-meter-rated watch is fine for swimming, sailing or snorkeling, but if you plan to go scuba diving, 100 meters is considered the minimum safety margin for water resistance. And if you spend a lot of time in the water, it’s a good idea to have the seals replaced annually and the water resistance checked.
If you wear your watch frequently, it’s bound to get a little dirty and, like any other piece of gear, should be cleaned. Make sure the crown is pushed or screwed in, then have at it with an old toothbrush and some water. Try to avoid using soap, as it can compromise the watch’s gaskets.
Leather straps look great and last many years, but they can get pretty gnarly from sweat or moisture, so if you’re wearing your watch in the water or sweat a lot, consider a steel band or a rubber or nylon strap. Changing straps is an easy task: simply get yourself a small forked tool and pop off the spring bar, then swap in the new strap. Changing straps is a great way to change the look of your watch without spending much and can become fairly addictive.
Some regular maintenance for your watch is a good idea. Given that a typical mechanical timepiece ticks almost 700,000 times every day, those gears and springs need attention eventually. So every five years or so, it’s a good idea to have a watchmaker clean and lubricate the movement. Ask them to swap out the gaskets while they’re at it.
A mechanical watch is still one of the most reliable devices you can own. There are countless watches from the middle of the last century still in common use today, keeping time as faithfully as the day they were bought. I can’t think of another everyday product that can claim that record of sustainability and longevity. So wind it up and wear the hell out of it, but take care of it. It will reward you by collecting the time of your life.