One of the biggest mistakes that new people make when they’re servicing a vintage watch is that they take it all apart and then they do a mediocre cleaning job to clean the parts, they put it back together, they lubricate it, and then they can’t figure out why the watch is not working correctly.
They’ve completely bypassed one of the most important parts of watchmaking and that’s making sure that your parts are perfectly clean.

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Cleaning Watch Parts by Hand

Today, we will jump into an important aspect of watchmaking – cleaning the watch parts. 

Pre-Cleaning

Pre-cleaning of watch parts is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, it helps remove a significant portion of contaminants such as grease and oil that may be present on the parts. This pre-cleaning step is essential to ensure that the wash solution remains free from these impurities, which can affect the efficiency of the cleaning process. The result is a cleaner watch with a longer lifespan, which is the ultimate goal of any watchmaker.

Secondly, pre-cleaning of watch parts allows for a better inspection of the movement and parts, before proceeding to the washing and reassembly steps. In the case of vintage watches, the parts are often caked with dried oils, making it difficult to inspect the jewel holes, pivots, and wheels. By pre-cleaning the parts, one can remove the dirt and dried oils, enabling a more detailed examination of the parts to detect any underlying issues that may require attention.

In essence, pre-cleaning is a vital preparatory step that sets the foundation for the subsequent cleaning stages. It enables the watchmaker to identify any underlying issues that need addressing and ensures that the final cleaning stages are more effective.

By doing so, you’ll not only improve the overall efficiency of the cleaning process but also ensure that you can see clearly during your parts inspections.

The Watch Part Cleaning Process 

As we will dive further into the process of cleaning watch parts. It’s worth noting that the cleaning process is basically the same, whether you’re using a $4,000 machine or doing it by hand.

 I want to emphasize the importance of following a four-stage process, which comprises of cleaning the parts and rinsing them three times. 

It’s essential to note that there’s no benefit to doing two wash cycles. If you need two wash cycles to clean your parts, then either you’re not leaving them in long enough, or your cleaning agent is not effective. Similarly, using two rinse cycles is not enough to remove all contaminants from the parts. For a successful cleaning process, all parts must be clean of all dirt and old lubrication and chemically clean.

Chemically Clean Parts

By “chemically clean,” I mean ensuring that no residue from the cleaning agent or rinse is left on the parts. Any residue can cause the lubricants to be drawn away from where they are needed and placed where they are not required, which is not desirable in watchmaking and will shorten the service life, and could potentially stop a watch.

Why Use 3  Rinse Cycles?

The purpose of the three-jar rinse cycle is to dilute any leftover contaminants from the wash cycle. After spinning the parts off from the wash cycle, they go into the first rinse jar. Any leftover contaminants from the wash cycle get diluted in the first rinse jar, which gets spun off and the parts get transferred to the second rinse jar. The second rinse dilutes any remaining contaminants, which get spun off and the parts are transferred to the final rinse jar. The purpose of the final rinse is to eliminate any last traces of contaminants, ensuring the parts are clean and free of residue.

Track Wash Cycles and Rotate Rinse Cycles

It’s essential to track how many cycles you’re running through the jars, whether you’re using a professional machine or a hand method. This involves tracking how many movements you clean before changing the fluids. When changing the washing fluid, empty the jar, clean it, and add new washing fluid. When changing the fluids in the rinse cycle, empty and clean the first jar, which is heavily contaminated with the washing solution. The second jar becomes the first rinse cycle, while the third jar becomes the second rinse cycle. The first jar is filled with clean rinse fluid and becomes the third rinse cycle.

You will get the best results if you follow the four-stage process when cleaning your watch parts. Ensure that the parts are chemically clean and keep track of how many cycles you run through the jars.

Pre Cleaning Supplies

The first thing you’ll need is some form of Q-tip, which can be regular Q-tips, or the ones I prefer which are Fran Wilsons Nail Tee’s, which are denser and have a pointed end. Surgical sponge-style Q-tips are also effective and do not release fibers. The pointed tips of these Q-tips allow for precise cleaning of hard-to-reach areas in the movement.

Fran Wilson Nail Tee's
Fran Wilsons Nail Tee’s

Watchmakers paper is another critical supply that comes in handy during the pre-cleaning process. This thin tissue-like paper is lint-free and helps prevent lint from getting onto the parts during the cleaning process. Regular paper towels can also be used, but they pose a risk of introducing lint onto the parts.


A small jelly jar or mason jar with a lid is necessary to pre-soak the parts during the pre-cleaning process. You’ll be dipping the parts in this jar as you clean them. 

Pegwood is another necessary supply for cleaning out the jewel holes. This is what’s known as pegging the jewels. The two-millimeter size is preferable to larger sizes, as it can form into small pivot holes better than toothpicks, which are not as soft.

jelly jar
Jelly Jar
pegwood
Peg Wood

Finally, Rodico is another excellent product for pre-cleaning. This versatile material is useful for a variety of tasks in watchmaking and is especially effective in pre-cleaning. You can roll the teeth of the wheels through Rodico to clean off the pivots.

Rodico
Rodico

These supplies are essential for pre-cleaning watch parts. Using the right tools and supplies during pre-cleaning sets the foundation for successful cleaning and ensures that the watch parts are chemically clean and free from contaminants.

Cleaning Solvents

Choosing the right solvent is crucial to ensure that the parts are chemically clean and free from contaminants.

Professional-grade watch part cleaning solutions such as L&R, Zenith, and Elma are the safest and easiest option for cleaning watch parts. These brands all have their advantages and disadvantages, and the choice ultimately depends on personal preference. However, they can be quite expensive, ranging anywhere from $45 to $55 a gallon, and may not be available in some parts of the world due to hazardous material regulations.

Cleaning Solvents
Cleaning Solvents

Naphtha, also known as lighter fluid, is a viable option for removing oil and grease and is readily available at hardware or big-box stores. It’s relatively inexpensive but requires diligent rinsing to ensure that no residue is left behind. Do not soak the balance and hairspring in Naptha, as they require specialized cleaning solutions.

Naphtha For Cleaning Watch Parts
Naphtha

For rinsing, my first choice would be isopropyl alcohol (IPA). The 99% pure formulation is recommended, as the 70% solution has water in it. IPA is excellent for cleaning oil and grease, has a low odor, and is suitable for both pre-cleaning and final cleaning rinses.

99% IPA for rinsing and cleaning watch parts
99% IPA

Hexane is another effective cleaner for removing oil and grease and is comparable to One Dip, a product specifically formulated for cleaning hairsprings. Hexane is safe for shellacked parts,  evaporates quickly, and does not leave any residue, but requires a good container for storage.

Hexane for cleaning Balance Wheels and Hairsprings
Hexane
OneDIp
OneDIp

Always have good ventilation when using solvent-based cleaners

Choosing the right solvent is crucial in the cleaning process of watch parts. Professional-grade cleaning solutions are the best option, but Naptha, IPA, and Hexane are viable alternatives, depending on availability and budget. 

Always have good ventilation when using solvent-based cleaners.

Pre-Cleaning Process

Let’s start by cleaning the mainspring barrel of a watch. The mainspring barrel is a vital component that requires proper cleaning to ensure the mainspring can function efficiently and produce enough power to run the watch.

To start the cleaning process, open the mainspring barrel and remove the mainspring itself. Drop the barrel and lid into a jar of solvent to soak. Cut a strip of watchmaker’s paper and dip it into the solvent of your choice. Then, holding the mainspring in your tweezers, lay the watchmaker’s paper over it and gently pull the mainspring through the paper from one end to the other. Repeat this process until the paper comes out clean.

Cleaning Mainspring with watchmakers paper and IPA alcohol
Cleaning Mainspring

Next, remove the mainspring barrel from the solvent and use a Q-tip to clean out all the grease from inside the barrel and its lid. This helps keep the contaminants out of the wash cycle. The cleaning does not have to be perfect, but as much grease as possible should be removed.

Pre- Cleaning Mainspring Barrel
Pre- Cleaning Mainspring Barrel

Once the mainspring barrel is clean, use a fresh Q-tip and solvent to clean around the inside of the barrel bridge and each of the jewel holes on both sides of the main plate and all the bridges. Next, sharpen your peg wood with a scalpel or razor blade, making long cuts across the peg wood to create a sharp point. Do not use a pencil sharpener, as the edges of the cuts need to be straight and not rounded over.

Pre-Cleaning Main plate
Pre-Cleaning Main plate

Insert the peg wood on top of the jewel hole and lightly spin it with your fingers, being careful not to push too hard and displace the jewel. Flip it over and repeat the process for the other side. Don’t forget to clean the barrel arbor holes in the main plate and the bridge.

Pegging Jewel Holes
Pegging Jewel Holes

Using a soft peg wood burnishes off any hard, dried lubricants left behind, ensuring that the jewels are clean and functioning correctly. Remember, the mainspring is a vital component, and proper cleaning ensures the watch’s efficient function.

Home-Made Parts Spinner

Now, you can clean watch parts one by one, with a small artist’s brush, but let me show you a simple tool that can make the cleaning process more efficient and effective.

It all starts with this Mesh basket that can fit into a wide-mouth mason jar. Take a thin steel rod and run it across the top of the basket, attaching it to each side of the handle. Then take a second steel rod and attach it to the horizontal rod, connecting it to the top of the basket.

If you do not have welding equipment, you can use a thin copper wire to wrap around each of the connection points to hold them in place. Then, use epoxy for metal to firmly attach each connection point.

It is important to note that the width of the bar that runs across the top of the basket cannot be wider than the basket itself, or it will not fit into the mason jar. Once the basket is complete, it can be attached to a drill or other rotary device to make the cleaning process more efficient.

Spinning Mesh Basket for hand cleaning watch parts
Spinning Mesh Basket

I use these small brass baskets to hold the smallest of parts and screws. I also use these same baskets in when Ultrasonic cleaning machine as well.

Small Watch Parts Baskets
Small Watch Parts Baskets

To use the mesh basket, simply drop your small part holders and watch plates, and bridges into the basket. Add the appropriate cleaning solution, and then spin the basket to wash the parts. To remove the excess liquid, insert the basket into an empty jar and spin off the excess liquid.

Drill and Spinning Basket
Drill and Spinning Basket

Repeat this process through the wash cycle and all three rinse cycles, spinning off the excess liquid between each stage. The mesh basket is a simple but essential tool that can make the watch cleaning process more efficient and effective.

Drying Watch Parts

The final stage in the watch cleaning process is drying the parts. It is important to avoid air drying as this can result in condensation on the parts. This is even more important if you are using water-based cleaners or rinses, even when using 99% IPA as your final rinse.

Instead, the parts should be dried with a moderate amount of heat and preferably with moving air. The use of heat during the drying process is crucial as it helps prevent any condensation on the watch parts. There are various methods to dry the parts, one of which is using a hairdryer. 

Alternatively, one can turn the oven on for a brief period just to elevate the temperature slightly, switch it off, and then place the watch parts inside to dry. 

Another recommended method is using a food dehydrator as it provides a flat tray that allows the parts to dry with the aid of circulating air. Additionally, one can control the temperature, which is a significant advantage. 

During the drying process, it is important to note that the temperature does not have to be high but just above room temperature.

Using one of these methods will ensure that your parts are properly dried and ready for the next steps in the servicing process.

Final Inspection

With all the watch parts now thoroughly cleaned, the final step is to conduct a last inspection to ensure that the jewel holes are free of debris and that the parts are in good condition before starting the assembly process.

Pro Tip

When conducting pre-cleaning or touch-up work on a part, it is useful to have a handy container that dispenses fresh solvent without risking contamination from oil or grease.

 

The Menda touch dispenser with a lid is a high-quality and well-known option that dispenses liquid up through the nozzle when the top is pushed down. 

Alternatively, a similar generic touch dispenser was originally intended for the beauty industry to dispense nail polish remover. These containers can be used to hold a range of solvents, including IPA alcohol or acetone.