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DIY watch making

Posted on  by Tommy Ku

In the past few months I have built enough watches to say something about DIY watch making.

DIY watch making is hella fun. It can be cheap if you know where to source parts and cannibalize parts from earlier builds. There are lots of opportunities for one’s creative expression or one can simply feel good about wearing a self-assembled watch.

Before moving on I want to say watch making = building = assembling = buy ready-made parts online and put a watch together. The spectrum of watch making the simple act of strap changing all the way to milling each individual gear for a mechanical movement. You may have a different definition, I don’t care.

There are a lot of hate online about not using OEM parts or building an expensive looking branded watch out of cheaper parts. Again I don’t care. While I am unwilling to use a dial that says “spring drive” or “Grand Seiko” on my builds, I certainly don’t mind whatever design other people come up with. Like sub-par cosplays, I appreciate the effort and the love people put into their works.

Cosplayers in AOD 2016
Appreciate the effort and the love put they into their cosplays

The world is stressful as it is. Let the man have their fun.

Ok, back to watch building.

My interest in watch making formed when I first saw the parts laid out in a shop and couples were picking parts, engraving names on a watch that’ll surely go to the bin upon their eventual breakups. The memory must have been fond, but any token of reminder is more likely to remind more pain than sweetness. Also they charge an exorbitant and discriminating amount of over HKD$2,000. Discriminating in which couples enjoy a discount whereas loners have to pay full price. To quote my uni humanities class instructor “Consider that they’ll have to endure the PDA of couples it’s right to charge extra”—when they don’t, all I can imagine is that smells like lures for couples that are susceptible to upselling such as engraving.

All these sinister thoughts may have been a simple sign of enviousness. Anyways the idea of DIY watch making had already been planted.

Fast forward a couple years I was in a very low point. My agonizing skin issue (itching eczema and painful loss of skin on my hands) has prohibited me from going out with my camera (out of fear they may slip from my greasy hand and not really in the mood). In searching for an alternative to pass time I began looking at watches.

By then I had already owned a Casio MTP-1381, Timex Expedition Chronograph, and a SNK789 from my parents. I wanted a different mechanical dress watch that sweeps. (normal quartz watch ticks once per second, most of time not pointing exactly at the second marks; whereas mechanical watch ticks 6 times, in a sweeping motion) At first I was shopping for the Seiko 5 field watch series which are distant homage to the original field watches, albeit looking more metallic and modern. I was split between the SNK705 and the newer SRPJs and SRPGs in price and feature—none of them is 100% what I wanted. I was so close to buying one but then I saw that the same kind of dial is available online.

Looks like a SNK705
Same kind of dial looking like an SNK705 availabile online

Then I realized:

If I can’t buy one I like, I could build one.

How? Check out SeikoMod community on Reddit, with many people eager to show off their builds. Many divers, lots of Oyster builds and mods, some completely unique and a few mind-blowing ones from time to time.

YouTube is also a valuable resource for beginners like me as various YouTubers documented how they build and what tools they use to build a watch. Not long after consulting a few videos I’ve compiled a list of minimal tools I’d need: a watch building set, a cushion, hand pusher, and a movement holder.

My first design was inspired by a Seiko Baby Alpinist, except with olive green dial, green nylon strap, golden hand reassembling the triangles on the hour marks, and 36mm round edge oyster case. Looking back it’s a weird choice, it’s too far away from a homage yet also too out of balance to be good looking. The anticipation of building my first watch however clouded my judgement and I went with it, with confidence, and excitement.

Olive alpinist dial in Oyster Perpetual case and questional hand choices
Hard to get the golden shines without the crystal reflecting like hell, dull olive green and questionable hand choices

The tools arrived first. I disassembled and scratched the dial of the Feiko quartz watch I got from some uncle in China. With the Feiko I practiced hand setting several times and finally got the hang of it. Not really, as the hands were installed, they are not as tight as new hands. The holes on new hands are tighter and slightly harder to just set, not to mention press.

Then the parts arrived. I had to take a bus to get them as they were sent to a random collection point 3 stops away. On the same night, despite a working day ahead of me, I pointed a LED light source at my table and started building it.

Case, easy. Needed to use a rubber ball to open it, because Oyster case doesn’t have the indented holes for my case opener to fit into.

Movement, easy, NH36. Turn the crown to wind the watch and gentle shake to get the balance started. It’s ticking.

NH36 movement
NH36 movement

Dial, test fit and cut the extra pair of legs for 3.8 crown position. My cutter at home is very dull so it’s half pulling off the legs. The remaining bits needed to be filed down. Took me 30min to do that, gently. There’s no need to be gentle as I later learned, as long as the side and the the wielding spots were not damaged by violent filing.

Test fitting the dial onto the movement
Took me long enough to trim down the dial feet residue

Hands, once the dial is installed onto the movement nicely, hands can be set. Hour hand and minute hand went in nice and easily. However the pressure and balance needed to be just right or the hands can be easily bent, and start interfering with each other, or the hour marks on the dial. Second hand setting took me the most time, because it couldn’t seem to see where the pinion is and the second hand kept flying away from my tweezers. Later experience taught me to shine bright light from the opposite side (usually that’d be my PC screen) and use a piece of rodico, poke the end of the hand into it to secure the hand. Anyway, it only took 40 minutes to set the hands properly. 2 watches later I could easily do the same in 5 minutes. At the time however, it felt like an enormous achievement as this part is mostly where people online struggled with.

Stem, oh yea, it’s too long. Cutting and filing the stem down took another 30 minutes as I had only 1 stem (I learned to buy spares later), but it went in eventually, the most successful stem cutting I should say, as I got quite lazy in later builds.

Stem is too long
Stem is too long and begging to be trimmed

Strap, a nylon top and artificial leather bottom strap didn’t quite fit right on my hand. It’s either too loose or too tight, typical between the holes problem, but I was happy. NATO strap later proved to be a better match, and artificial leather strap ended up to be the best fit as it is stretchable.

Strap on and ready to go
Strap on and ready to go

As such, after hours of struggle and anticipated sleepiness at work the next day, I finished my first watch build! Happy? Yes! Thrilled!

As I proudly wore my new watch to work, when nobody bet an eye on my new watch, my mind was racing hunt for inspiration for the next design and where I could source the parts to build them.

I knew this feeling. It’s when I first bought a new kind of camera or tried out a new trick such as Infrared Trichrome process. This feeling will fade and the brain demands the next novelty. What do people call this? An addiction. Running too fast too deep into a hobby would prove to be a mistake, but that’s a story for another time.

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About the author

Profile pic of Tommy Ku

Tommy Ku, a Hong Kong-based Software Engineer experienced developing PHP and Java-based web solutions and passionate in Web technology.

Also a hobbyist digital and film photographer.