Adjusting a 1919 Elgin 313 16s Pocket Watch to 6 Positions

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Elgin made over 50,000,000 watches, so they aren’t rare. But this Elgin pocketwatch is rare in a way—I bought it at a small-town antique mall for a sensible, fair price.

You watch hunters out there know what I mean. Antique shops and (horror of horrors) stalls at antique malls are bad places for good deals. It seems like every seller with a gold-filled 7-jewel Elgin or Waltham thinks it’s worth a fortune. But this nice little shop had a fair price on their watches, so I took this one home.

It’s a 16-size, grade 313, from 1919—98 years old. It has 15 jewels, the lower-end for a quality pocket watch. Nothing was especially wrong with it except a broken mainspring.

The enameling has fallen out of the engraved letters in a few spots. This is one of those freakishly easy cosmetic repairs that makes a watch much nicer.

The old blue steel mainspring was broken, so I found a new-old-stock white alloy replacement. Oddly, the new one was “set” into a coil shape right out of the retaining ring.

You don’t often see alloy mainsprings that are set this way, but it does happen. A set mainspring won’t create the force you need for good amplitude, so I had to order another one.

The watch was missing 2 of its 3 dial screws. That’s usually a sign that the last person to work on the watch wasn’t paying attention. Elgin tried to keep the parts count low, so humble parts like dial and jewel screws were shared across vast numbers of grades and sizes—something we repairers appreciate 98 years later when trying to find replacements.

Adjusting the Movement

After the usual cleaning, demagnetizing, and breaking-in period, this watch was ready for the timing machine.

This watch should be reasonably easy to adjust. Elgin made nice watches—this humble 15-jewel watch isn’t a fancypants railroad-grade timepiece, but it is capable of keeping good time.

One thing I wish this watch had, though, was mean-time screws. Adjusting is much easier with those because you can make big changes in the overall rate. If you want to improve poise by adding weight, you can make the watch run fast by turning in the mean-time screws.

I can tell someone did a rough adjusting job at some point: a few screws are heavily filed—big wedges have been lopped off the sides of the screws. I wish people wouldn’t remove weight that way. Undercutting a screw or filing the screw slot are less obtrusive than hacking off a screw’s side.

The initial rates were not great but typical for your average mid-spec, 98-year-old pocket watch.

First, the horizontal rates: they are within 8 seconds of each other, which is merely okay. Perhaps scrubbing the pivots and jewels again will help. Aligning the dial-up and dial-down rates is the first step, and it looks like this watch is basically okay.

The biggest problem is pendant-up (PU). For a pocket watch adjusted to 3 positions, DU, DD, and PU should be reasonably close. Here, PU is around 45 seconds faster than DU, which is poor.

So, let’s see what we can do. For this watch, we’ll both add weight with timing washers and remove weight, if necessary, via undercutting.

It took around 5 irksome rounds—without timing screws, poising a watch like this is trickier than it ought to be. Here’s where we ended up.

This is much better overall but not nearly as good as the results from our higher-grade watches by Waltham, Illinois, and Hamilton. The PL side is still too far off, but I won’t push my luck any further with this watch. I’ll shift the regulator to be +2 DU and then put this one to bed.

Cleaning the Case

The case had that dull, hazy look that neglected gold-filled cases get. It ought to clean up nicely.

The crystal is glass—always a plus for a pocket watch—but horribly scuffed. This must have been a “back of the drawer” watch left dial down for decades, sliding around on its crystal whenever the drawer moved.

Yikes. Even after cleaning, the crystal looks terrible.

Cleaning and polishing gold-filed cases is easy but requires some restraint. For cleaning, just take the case apart and use an ultrasonic cleaner with heating. This case was cleaned in a 1:1 solution of Simple Green and water. If you don’t have an ultrasonic, the solutions you use to clean watch movements will work wonders. And if you don’t have that, an ammonia-based cleaner like Windex and a soft cloth will work nearly as well.

The “cap” of gold came off the crown during ultrasonic cleaning. It has been held on by crust and grime, apparently. If you were ever curious to know how thick the gold layer is on a gold-filled case, it is that thick, like aluminum foil.

For polishing, you want to have a light touch and modest expectations. We can polish the light haze and swirls from a gold-filled case, but the gold layer is too light to remove scratches or bring the case to a factory-new state.

For a case like this, I’ll start with a light polish with Menzerna’s pink compound on a loose cotton wheel.

After cleaning the case pieces again to avoid contaminating polishing wheels, I have a go with Menzerna’s yellow compound on a loose wheel. This compound is impressive on gold.

You can get great results. The nicks and scratches and dents are still there, but the case is clean and shiny.

I raided my stash of glass crystals, but as often happens, the stash was out of 16s crystals that would fit this bezel. The 16s and 18s ones are always the first to go.

So plastic it is. Plastic crystals aren’t as fancy or as period-correct as glass, but they are tougher and better suited for the stresses of daily wear. I put plastic crystals on the small core of pocket watches I wear to work, like my Illinois Bunn Special.

The clarity of the new plastic crystal is quite good.

Wrapping Up

And here’s the final watch, all wrapped up.

It isn’t the fanciest, highest-grade Elgin of its time, but it’s clean, shiny, and ready for reliable service.