Adjusting an 1890 Elgin Grade 75 18s Pocket Watch to 3 Positions

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I haven’t done a post on an Elgin watch yet, but there’s no dark animus behind it. Elgin watches don’t get the love they should. Although I prefer Illinois watches, I’m not one of the Elgin haters. The company made great watches and introduced some important innovations into watch design and manufacturing.

A friend passed along this charming Elgin to see if I could fix it. It’s an 18-size Elgin grade 75, marked “Wheeler.” It has 15 jewels, a good amount for watches from that era. The inestimable Pocket Watch Database dates this watch to around 1890.

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This watch belonged to his grandfather, who used it as his “workday carry” for decades.

There’s much to love about this one. The porcelain dial with Roman numbers, the thin blue hands, and the aged coin silver (.800 fine silver) case make it an alluring watch.

We’ll use this watch as an example of adjusting restraint. In an earlier post, we talked about times when we wouldn’t want to finely adjust a watch to 5 or 6 positions. This watch meets a few of those criteria:

  • This is basically a restoration project. This a family heirloom, not a watch that will be used, so the goal is to clean it and allow it to run safely.
  • For the same reasons, I don’t want to modify the watch in a way that isn’t reversible. My friend should be able to enjoy the watch as his grandpa did.

Nevertheless, we do have standards, and I’m not going to let a watch out of my mitts that runs badly and keeps poor time. My friend wants to carry it to work sometimes, so the watch should keep good time. My aim here is to clean it, repair a few problems, and adjust it lightly. We’ll thus aim for the 3 main pocket watch positions: dial up, dial down, and pendant up.

Showing Your Age

Like most of us, this watch shows its age and past. It is greasy and grimy—again, like most of us, I suppose. My friend said this watch was worked on by someone in the 1990s, and that person wasn’t stingy with the oiler. Oil is everywhere, and the balance jewels are flooded.

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The watch had three big problems:

  • It would run with good amplitude, but only for 20 or 30 minutes. One suspects a set mainspring.
  • The time wouldn’t set, so something is awry with the keyless works.
  • The movement had a few fine shavings, curled like wiry hair. Something is scraping against something else.

Cosmetically, the case is full of flaky cheese. Someone back in the day put a layer of sealant (probably wax) between the bezel, snapback, and case. This was an old-school way of keeping out air and dust. But as the wax hardens, it flakes off into the dial and movement. It looks gross.

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In the old days, when watchmakers were everywhere, a working class fellow with a watch like this would probably take it to a local shop that offered a good deal on repairs. I can tell that this watch has been through many hands, some of which were a bit heavy by modern standards. Here’s a roughly replaced pin for the click spring.

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Here’s the other side.

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Some of the setting parts are stuck, preventing the watch from setting the time. Elgin came up with many fun and clever winding and setting systems. The method used in this watch is interesting but prone to excessive wear and failure.

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elginkeylessThe red circle shows the problem. There’s a conical intermediate wheel there that’s stuck. A forked spring beneath the wheel presses it up against the plate. When the watch sets, the conical top of the wheel sits nicely in the hole in the plate, allowing it turn the setting wheels. But when the watch winds, the hole in the plate is offset (as in the photo), preventing the conical wheel from engaging.

It’s a quirky system that creates much scraping and eccentric wear. The old grease had caused this wheel to seize, preventing it from engaging.

Cleaning the Movement

After a bath, this greasy fellow was scrubbed and shiny. A cracked balance hole jewel was replaced.

The old mainspring was set and tired. The watch had a marked, OEM Elgin blue steel spring. The brace is marked with the initials for “Elgin National Watch Company.” Note that the brace is irregular: it has only one tab. The replacement white alloy springs had two tabs, so a bit of careful trimming and filing was called for.

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Assembling these full plate watches usually drives me to madness, but this one came together well. After oiling and demagnetizing, the watch ticked away nicely. I let it run for a couple days and then measured its rates.

Timing and Adjusting

It’s a good idea to examine the balance for signs of prior tinkering. I couldn’t see any timing washers or obvious signs of filing or undercutting. The balance assembly, though, showed heavy wear. The balance pivots were heavily worn. This made the ends about as flat as you can get without being concave. The wear also made the endshake too large. If this were my own watch, I would replace the balance staff. But it isn’t, so we’ll just see how it turns out.

The watch ran really fast, around 220 seconds per day. But it ran that fast in our 3 positions: DU, DD, and PU—a good omen.

The amplitude was great, around 280 DU and DD. Oddly, the amplitude didn’t drop off in the PU position—a consequence of the flat balance staff pivots. These increase friction when DU and DD, thus reducing amplitude in those positions. One could round the pivots, but it isn’t necessary when the positions have similar rates.

Oddly, this watch lacks mean-time screws on the balance rim. It’s thus a job for our friendly neighborhood timing washers. A couple large washers brought the rates reasonably close to zero.

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After fussing with the regulator, I ended up with some unusually good rates for a watch of this age and condition:

  • Dial Up (DU): +6
  • Dial Down (DD): +1
  • Pendant Up (PU): -1

You get lucky sometimes. I know not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I won’t do anything more to this watch. To the Elgin haters, let this be a demonstration of why Elgin watches were so popular in their day.

Cleaning the Case, Dial, and Crystal

Next step: cleaning the case, dial, and crystal. I love this case, a coin silver Keystone with a hinged double back.

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The case cleaned up well. A silver case can be cleaned and polished to a scary shine capable of signaling for aircraft when you’re marooned. But for this case, we want to just clean off the flaky wax. Some quality time with soap, water, and a toothbrush made a big difference. The case is cleaner but still has the toned, aged look.

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Family lore says that these scrapes and gouges came on the job. The owner worked in a sawmill, and apparently this watch fell against the blades a few times.

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I don’t care if these scrapes actually came from his paté knife slipping during a repast of caviar and tea: the sawmill lore is too good to disbelieve.

One of the case screws wore through the case rim, so someone made a crude tab to brace the movement. It isn’t pretty, but I’ll keep it all as-was.

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This dial, like most old porcelain dials, has some small hairline cracks.

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The dial was soaked in fizzy denture cleaner, a method described by Dave Coatsworth. It works unusually well. The cracks don’t heal, of course, but they are less visible once the grime is removed.

Finally, the crystal needs some attention. It has the nicks and scuffs one would expect from a watch worn in a sawmill, but we’re going to keep it rather than replace it. After a quick scrubbing with soap and an old toothbrush, it looks much brighter.

To insert it, I used UV glue, which bonds glass to metal well and dries clear. UV glue is cured by UV light, so in normal lighting it has a long working time. To cure it quickly, just place the case in this infernal-looking contraption—a cheap UV lamp—for 30 seconds.

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And we’re done! This watch took longer for me to get to than I planned, and in my haste to box it up for my friend I committed the cardinal sin of blogging—forgetting to take an “after” picture. Alas!

Wrapping Up

This watch is an example of the difference between could and should. With a new balance staff, this watch would be capable of excellent time in 6 positions. Modern tools and methods can make a quality watch like this run better than when it left the factory. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Left alone, this watch keeps great time in the main positions and keeps its original character.

My friend was delighted with the watch and said he happened to have another old pocket watch laying around, something not as cool but perhaps worth a look. I was amazed at what he had when I saw it, but I’ll leave you hanging on that cliff until our next post.