I’m going to show you how you can clean your watch parts if you don’t have a watch cleaning machine.

Think about cleaning in 2 stages, there is Pre-cleaning and then your final cleaning.

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Different Stages for Cleaning Watch Parts

  • Pre cleaning certain parts serves 3 purposes. It removes the bulk of the contaminants from the dirtiest parts, making your wash solution more effective. It extends the lifespan of your wash and rinse solutions. Precleaning also removes hard, dried up lubricants from the jewels and pivots allowing for better inspections.
  • The process of washing parts is the same no matter whether you are using a professional machine or not. You use one solution to remove the grim and then 3 cycles of rinses followed by drying the parts leaving them chemically clean.
  • When I talk about the parts being chemically clean, what I am talking about is removing all traces of residue, from whatever you are using to wash and rinse the parts, from the metal.
  •  So why is this important. The main reason is that residue changes the surface tension of the metal resulting in the oils being pulled away from where you want them to be, starving the pivot, and having them creep around to parts that don’t need lubrication like teeth and pinions. The result is increased friction, which means loss of amplitude resulting in loss of the timekeeping ability,

Start by Presoaking heavily soiled watch parts

Plates, bridges as well as the mainspring barrel tend to be the worst as far as dried up and excessive lubricants. Presoaking them will help us loosen them up to make their removal more efficient.

Watch Cleaning Supplies for Pre-Cleaning Parts

There are a few supplies other than the solvents that will make the pre cleaning process easier. The first are Qtips. You can use regular ones if that’s what you have, but I prefer to use Fran Wilson Nail Tee Brand. They are pointed and are denser than regular Q-tips and are less prone to sheading.

Fran Wilson Nail Tee’s
Yellow Nail Tee vs Regular Q-tip
Menda Solvent Dispenser

A small mason or jelly jar for soaking parts and dipping your Q-tip in. I use these Menda solvent dispensing bottles which are awesome. You press down on the top and a small amount of solvent comes out to dip into.

Watchmakers Paper

The next would be a watchmakers paper. Watchmakers paper is lint free which is ideal, but you can use paper towels if that’s all you have.

Peg Wood

 Peg wood for cleaning the jewel holes. Don’t get peg wood confused with wooded dowls or toothpicks. Peg wood is much softer and goes into the jewel holes without pushing the jewels out of position. I like the smaller 2mm size.

Rodico

Rodico for precleaning wheel teeth and pivots. Rodico is great for precleaning but try to limit its use after final cleaning as it does leave a residue behind.

Then you need a solvent. Obviously, you need to use common sense with anything that may be flammable, and ventilation is of course a good idea, depending on your sensitivity.

Some solvents that would work would be naphtha or lighter fluid or IPA Alcohol. I prefer the IPA as it leaves less residue to have to worry about and dries fast.

Pre-cleaning the mainspring & barrel in a watch movement

  Start by opening the barrel and removing the mainspring. Drop the lid and drum into your soaking jar.  Grease is one of the hardest things to remove and tends to contaminate your wash solvent the fastest, so we want to remove as much as possible before our final cleaning. If the mainspring is in good condition and the plan is to reuse it lets start by cleaning off the grease.

Cutting watchmaker paper into strips
Pulling mainspring through watchmaker paper with IPA

This is easily done by cutting off a piece of watchmaker paper and folding it over and dipping it into the solvent. IPA alcohol works great for this. Always use 99% IPA or greater. Anything less is watered down and could cause rust.

Lay the folded paper over the spring, griping it with your tweezers and gently pull the mainspring through the paper from one end to the other and repeat until the paper is clean. Incidentally, this is also how we will lubricate the mainspring, but I’ll cover that in our lubrication videos.

Now use your Q-tips and clean the drum and barrel lid.

Pre-cleaning Mainspring barrel

Now you can take your soaking plates and bridges and clean up the jewels for inspection.

Pegging the jewel holes on a watch movement

Pegging the jewel holes is a critical step in the cleaning process. Tests have shown that unpegged jewels can reduce the amplitude by 10-20 degrees which is huge in a watch service.

Start by sharpening the end of the peg wood, I like to use a scalpel and cut off 3 pieces down to a point.

Sharpening Peg wood

Don’t stick the peg wood in a pencil sharpener, you don’t want it rounded, you want these sharper edges.

Now lightly twist into the jewel hole.

Pegging Jewel Holes

As you twist back and forth, the soft peg wood will work its way into the hole removing any dried-up lubricants. Repeat this on all the jewel holes. Remember it doesn’t take much pressure, you don’t want to push a jewel out of position and screw up the end shake.

Now that you have the jewels pre cleaned, inspect them under a light like I showed you looking for broken and cracked jewels.

Pivots can be can now be precleaned and inspected by rolling the wheel through a flattened out piece of rodico. If there is anything on the pivots just push it into the rodico until it is clean.

Now you can install the wheels into the plate and bridge to check your end shake.

Final cleaning of the watch parts

Now that we have pre cleaned our parts and are ready for the final cleaning.

You can use an artist brush and clean each part by hand, but I’ll show you one way to speed up the cleaning process that produces good result. This method is really meant for those that are brand new or on a limited budget. I did a video on cleaning parts with an ultrasonic machine which is way more efficient if you want to check that out.

The supplies needed for this process are 5 mason jars with lids. These are for the wash and rinses cycles.

A large mesh basket. This is where the plates, and larger parts can go in loose.

Smart Part baskets. These hold the smallest parts like screws.

Wide Mouth Mason Jars. You need for the wash cycle, 3 for the rinse cycles and 1 for spinning off excess fluids.

Large Part Basket
Small Part Baskets
Wide Mouth Mason Jars

Cleaners and Rinses for cleaning watch parts

The best choice for cleaners and rinses is always going to be ones formulated specifically for watch parts. L & M, Zenith and Elma are all good ones.

If the cost of these cleaners is not doable for you and you are looking for an alternative, then I would go with naphtha. Its works reasonably well in removing oils but there will be some residues that need to be removed in the rinse cycles.

For rinsing I would recommend IPA alcohol in all the jars. Using 99% pure ensures a residue free finish as the less pure options are cut with water and are not chemically pure which is not ideal for rinsing watch parts.

Remember that shellacked pallet jewels and impulse jewels dissolve in alcohol to their exposure to IPA should be brief are none at all.  A quick exposure is usually ok as long as the shellac is still in really good condition and the exposure pretty fast. I did a whole video on just this subject.

Cleaning the Pallet Fork and Balance Wheel

Even though I use a Zenith 4 jar cleaning machine and an Ultrasonic machine, I still clean my balance wheel and pallet fork separately. Why? Because with vintage watches, often times the shellac holding the jewels may not be in the greatest of condition. To me it’s just not worth the risk of them coming out of a machine with a jewel missing.

For the Balance and pallet fork, my choice would be Hexane. Hexane is unbelievable at removing oils and is safe for shellacked parts even when the parts are soaked in it.

Hexane

Hexane is an alternative to a product you may have heard of called One Dip which is used for cleaning balances, but Hexane is much less expensive. Just like OneDip there are some fumes from Hexane. Use in good ventilation and limiting your exposure by using diamond cleaning jars.

Diamond Cleaning Jar

I place them in a diamond cleaning jar to soak then swirl them inside the jar one at a time before removing them and drying them off. They can soak for a long period of time. Make sure to agitate the cleaner with a blower to move it around the soaking parts.

Using a Drill to Spin the basket to clean watch parts

I used two thin metal rods and attached one horizontally and one vertically with thin wire and then soldered the wire securely to the basket. I now have a way to spin the baskets in the different mason jars.

The cleaning process goes something like this. Spin the basket for about 5 minutes for the wash cycle, and then remove the basket from the wash and lift out the parts and go into the empty jar and spin off as much of the wash solvent as you can.

Now go into the first rinse cycle and repeat the procedure for 5 minutes. Spin off the excess fluid and then go into thee the second rinse cycle for 2 minutes, spin of the excess fluid then another 2 minutes in IPA Alcohol.

Viewers modifications to my idea.

I have received many examples from viewers that took this idea and came up with their own idea to improve the design. Here are a couple examples.

Stuart from South Africa
Jon from the US

The purpose of three rinse cycles

The purpose of the 3 rinse cycles is simple. The first rinse will remove the bulk of the cleaner used. When the spin off the 1st rinse, there will be some let over cleaner still on the parts because it is getting mixed with the rinse solution.

The second rinse further removes any traces of the cleaner because it becomes more diluted.

The final rinse should remove any leftover residue or cleaner as well as displace and water if you used water as the 1st and second.

No matter whether you are using professional solutions or homemade ones, it’s always a good idea to track your cleaning cycles so that you know when to change them out.

The best way to know how clean or dirty your fluids are is by simple inspection the jewels. If they look clean on close inspection, your fluid are working well.

The cleaner gets changed out for fresh cleaner. Rinse jar 1, gets disposed of. Rinse jar 2 become rinse jar #1. Rinse jar #3 becomes rinse jar #2 and Rinse jar # 3 gets fresh IPA.

Drying off your watch parts

After the parts come out of the final rinse the parts need to be immediately dried.

Heat them just enough so that they dry at a temperature above room temp. Even if you don’t use water-based cleaners or rinses, parts coming out of a fast-evaporating chemical evaporates and become susceptible to condensation will. Condensation is water and water cause rust so dry your parts.

The temperature doesn’t have to be hot, just above room temperature. Some things that will work are a hairdryer, turning the oven on just enough for it to start to warm and then put the parts in the oven for about ten minutes. My favorite option, a food dehydrator.

Drying watch parts with a food dehydrator

The food dehydrator uses circulating air, is temperature controlled and has timers that may be usable for you. They work perfectly because not only can you control the temperature, but it circulates warm air inside the drying area.

Food Dehydrator for drying watch parts

The Final Step when cleaning watch parts

Now that your parts are dry spend some time to inspect your work. The jewels are usually the best place to look as well as the barrel drum. You should be looking at clean parts and shiny jewels. Sometimes you may need to touch up a small spot here and there, but what you are also looking for is that there is no visible residue from the cleaners.

Pro Tip

A great way to store your solvents for precleaning is in these handily little dispensing jars. When you push on the top it dispenses a small amount that you can dip your Q-tip into. This ensures that you are always using the cleanest solvent as you clean off parts. It also limits your exposure to more volatile solvents and prevents evaporation.

The best quality ones are made by Menda. I use the Menda bottle for my Hexane because it’s a glass and is designed for stronger chemicals.

For IPA I use one like this because they are less expensive. It works the same and may be fine for something stronger like hexane.

I keep these jars by my bench and use them every day.