A Watch Story

Text and Photos by Ron DeCorte

December, 2004

Over the years I've been asked many times why and how I became involved in watchmaking. Most recently Mike Disher of TZ asked if I could prepare a short article about my watchmaking background for the TZ community. 

It wasn't by script that I came to be a watchmaker, quite the contrary. As a matter of fact I would say that most of the watchmakers I know came to the trade via other avenues. For me these avenues were mechanical engineering, precision mechanic (tool and die maker), instrument maker, and a love for all mechanical things.

Having spent most of my life working in the mechanical trades I decided to make a career change in the late 1980's. My love affair with watches and clocks started many years before my personal involvement with them. The resonance of clocks on the walls and watches ticking was a constant reminder of things to come, but I didn't know it yet.

My initial studies of watchmaking were very basic, but soon I realized that "making" watch components was a specialized field filled with opportunity. Several years of increasingly complicated restoration work honed my skills at fabricating almost every imaginable watch component.

Calling myself a watchmaker and being a watch-MAKER were two totally different things regardless of the similarity of their titles. Traveling to Switzerland became a passion for me, to see and experience what the real independent watch-MAKERS were doing and to glean as much as possible from each (not an inexpensive obsession for sure).

It was Philippe Dufour who explained that year after year he had visitors who all said they wanted to make a watch, but few, if any, ever accomplished the deed. Go home and make a watch was his recommendation, I took his advice.

Returning home with Philippe's words ringing in my ears it was time to get started. I didn't want to start, get side tracked, and never finish the project. Setting six months aside was my way of avoiding that danger. First the drawings - what would I make? My immense regard for early American and mid 19th century English watches was a good place to start. After a few false starts on the drafting board I finally decided on an approach. A key-wind, key-set, 3/4 plate, free sprung pocket watch in a silver open face case. Simple and elegant was my goal.

It took a month to create the drawings and another three months to fabricate the wheels, pinions, plates, bridges, and yes even the screws. My wife and friends thought I was crazy. They were right.

Completing the project was as challenging as the initial design and fabrication stages. Each and every component required demanding attention to fit and finish. Another two months expired. And hence goes the story of making a watch.

Fortunately at the time of this writing, I have one semi-finished movement available, and my first completed watch, #001, that is here for its 10-year servicing. And so, I would like to share some pictures with a few comments interjected to explain how things evolved and to describe a some watchmaking processes that you might find interesting. You can click the images below to view larger versions.

The main plate and 3/4 bridge are made from 50mm (2 inch) brass rod. A disc is sawn from the rod to approximately the correct thickness. The disc is then shellacked to a large steel fixture, as above, and the faces are turned flat on the lathe. The recesses are turned and most holes are drilled. After removal from the steel fixture both faces are lapped perfectly flat and the disc is heated for several hours in an oven and allowed to cool slowly to relieve any stress. The faces of the disc, now a main plate, are lapped again and the plate is re-shellacked to the steel fixture and all the precision holes such as jewel-settings, barrel arbor, and locating pins are bored to precise size and location.

The 3/4 plate is fabricated in the exact same manner as described earlier. Here you can see evidence of how the various recesses are turned prior to separating the balance bridge with a saw (the small piece at the top is discarded). You may also notice that the steel locating pins have been set.


All of the bridges dry-fit onto the main plate. From this stage each component is beveled, the flat surfaces are matt finished, sinks are formed at each hole, engraving work is completed, and finally 18K gold plated.

The train wheels (gears) are made from gold plated brass blanks, in other words the spokes are formed but there are no teeth. Several wheel blanks are loaded onto an arbor and the teeth are cut slightly large (more about this a bit later). The escape wheel and all pinions are made from steel. The wheels and pinions are fit together to form a unit either by friction (pressed) or by riveting. In horological terms a "wheel" is the combination of the wheel and pinion once they are married together.

After the wheels and pinions are married it's time to finish the teeth to final size and shape. A depthing tool (also known as a compass) is set for the exact distance between the locations of two wheels. In the above case the center wheel is mated with the 3rd wheel pinion exactly as it will in the watch. The center wheel is gently rotated and the depthing of the wheel and pinion are felt, generally feeling a bit lumpy at first because the wheel is a tad oversize. Note: In earlier times the depthing tool was used to mark the plates, via the sharp points on the end of each runner (broach), for drilling the jewel setting holes. Hence the name "compass."

The center wheel is removed from the depthing tool and placed in the rounding-up tool (also known as a topping engine). The rounding-up tool is used to remove small amounts of material from the wheel's tooth form via a fine cutter (fraise). Notice that the cutter is split (see detail "A" below) and forms somewhat of a screw that will automatically index the wheel one tooth for each revolution of the cutter. The center wheel is shuttled back and forth between the depthing tool and the rounding-up tool, removing a small amount from the teeth each time, until it runs (feels) absolutely smooth when mated with the 3rd wheel pinion. Note: The rounding-up tool is never used for finishing pinions, and only occasionally for steel wheels prior to being hardened.

Detail "A"

The following pictures are just a few mostly unfinished (rough) components, exactly as I retrieved them from their storage boxes.

An unfinished hour hand (left), and a minute hand (right) beveled, polished, and blued. The boss (round portion) of the minute hand is yet to be flat polished.

The screws are turned and threaded, the tops are slightly rounded, and the slots are cut by hand with a special file. Later the screws will be flame hardened and tempered, the tops will be polished and then blued over an alcohol lamp. The case screw on the left has not been rounded or slotted yet.

An unfinished ratchet wheel and its click/spring (very rough), and an unfinished barrel arbor ready for hardening and tempering. The tail of the click/spring will be thinned with a file until it is about the same thickness as a hair. The square hole in the ratchet wheel will be fit (by hand) onto the square section of the barrel arbor.

A finished escape wheel/pinion and an unfinished pallet fork (anchor). The bevels on the fork are roughly formed prior to hardening and tempering.

OK, enough pictures and babbling about making watch parts. Lets have a look at a finished watch. Please keep in mind that this watch is 10 years old and has been used continuously during that time.

A few notes about the three pictures above:
  • The chain is made of braided Italian leather, as not to scratch the case engraving.
  • A balance bridge, rather than the typical balance cock, is used to provide greater stability for the large balance wheel.
  • The balance is free-sprung, no regulator, for more consistent time keeping.
  • Case and movement engraving by Steve Lindsay.
  • Case fabrication by Jean Wuischpard.
  • The dial is hard porcelain.

Independent watchmaking isn't an easy profession, especially if you live and work outside of Europe. I tip my hat to all the independent horologists who bring new and intuitive products to those who appreciate artistry. A few individually important people such as Derek Pratt, Philippe Dufour, Gene Clark, Richard Miklosch, and Heinz Nikles have educated, inspired, supported, and guided me over the years, many thanks to all.

© Ron DeCorte 2004, All rights reserved