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Enjoying DIY watch building

Posted on  by Tommy Ku

DIY watch making has became my hobby when my body and my work prevented me from going under the sun and shoot some film photos, which I also enjoyed.

As such a great amount of time this summer was spent building watches. DIY watch making is a hobby that takes forever for those pricy parts to arrive and they may not even fit at the end, particular the steel bracelet end links!

No worries though, it doesn’t require all the 9 planets to line up for a hobbyist to build a watch one likes. In fact, the many endeavor outside of building the actual watch is accumulatively more rewarding then the actual building!

Below are some ways one can enjoy the hobby while waiting for the right parts to arrive.

Be inspired

While I stray away from participating in the community to disengage my sensitive side from social influence, I’m certainly enjoying seeing what others are doing in read-only mode. The reddit community r/Watches, r/SeikoMods, r/WatchExchange and r/ChineseWatches are subs that I frequent. These are places people share cool and crazy designs, or simply seek social approval via “my first build” or “latest purchase” posts.

Once I’ve seen enough, I can tell what a watch design is inspired by in a glance, with a side effect of amping up my internal conflict regarding homage vs. fakes, which are the same thing, but feel very different.

That’s how my Bubble Back build came to be and how it went a slightly direction just to distinguish it from the original.

Part of my dress watch build inspirations collection, I bet my Seiko 5 build came from one of these

Watch videos

At first YouTube was suggesting video version of watch recommendation listicles, which I enjoyed and then detested rather quickly because a $100 sub looks little different from a $5000 sub to me, those are just for folks to feed to their confirmation bias before/after their purchases.

Then the truly informative and interesting form of watch building video emerged: restoration videos.

Those who created restoration videos are the pros, they know what they are dealing with and what they are doing. The narrated ones are best because the narration educates the viewers the history of the watch being restored, the technique and reasoning behind their decisions of say replacing a part versus just cleaning them. These video are relaxing to watch somehow as well, seeing a junk watch disassembled into parts and reassembled back together as a shiny piece of precision machine feels so satisfying at the end.

The time setting wheels of my NH36 were knock out of alignment and online video helped me navigate through the repair

Disassemble watches

To get any sort of hands on experience it’s easier to just disassemble an old or junk watch. I’ve done so with a defective quartz to practice hand setting before attempting my first build, and I’ve went on to do a few other experiments to enable my VH31 build.

Sometimes disassembling watches is a cheap way to obtain parts as well, particularly for the quartz builds I’m doing.

One time I was opening up my Timex Expedition Field to fix the chronograph pushers, so that the watch becomes useful again, all thanks to what I learned disassembling other parts watches.

Timex chronograph pusher repair
Opening up the Timex and fix the stuck pushers

Modding watches

When I am tired of the look of a watch I own, I don’t mind to swap out a dial, or the handset, or to completely remix the parts from two different watches, mostly with quartz watches because there are more parts lying around.

Most of my watch cases have gone through at least one dial swaps, and countless strap changes until I believe it’s reached a state I like the combination so much I don’t want to change it anymore—until I’ve eventually grown tired of it some time in the future.

Stealth build
Last photo of this watch before I gutted it for parts

Shoot photos

I have bought a lot of macro photography equipments that can finally be of use because watches are these small pieces of machines laiden with design details that can only be captured in their full glory with macro photography. Using the macro adaptor on my XT-20 and some lighting aid I was able to capture every little details that are easy to miss like, the smudge on the case or the wavy patterns on my Seiko 5 dial.

Seiko 5 build
The smudge on the case or the wavy patterns on my Seiko 5 dial

Good for some showing off on Instagram, or my photo stream too.

Go shopping

I’m certainly guilty for this. The online stores for parts, albeit lacking creativity, has certainty no lack of homage material. To imagine how different combinations will work out is an exciting past time that I enjoyed.

For the low budget builds that I do, I started by gathering a few parts I believe will work and just mix and match, while also checking elsewhere for parts with similar vibe or cheaper price. At one point I will commit to a build, then took a 180 to swap to an entirely different style. Say my field watch build became an Aqua Terra build after realizing there exists those AT dials that worked way better with the case during one of my long browse of parts.

Shopping list
Shopping list for a California dial bubble back build

Build, unbuild and rebuild

And that’s how I was able to enjoy an evening of watch building without breaking the back. For the price of all 9 watches I bought or built I could have easily afforded a Seiko Presage or Tissot PRX or something of that caliber (pun intended), yet I wouldn’t have been as happy, not having any choice over what and how my watches are going to look.

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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.