Removing and installing balance wheels and pallet forks is a critical aspect of watch repair that requires a delicate touch. As an aspiring watch repair hobbyist, mastering this task is essential to progress to the next level. However, this process is not for the faint of heart, and even the slightest mistake could cause significant damage to the watch movement. 

The techniques required to successfully remove and install the balance wheel and pallet fork are everyday work for a watchmaker, so you will want to practice this until you become very comfortable with it.

 In this guide, we will explore the guidelines and tips to help you master this delicate process and avoid costly mistakes.

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Mastering the Task of Removing and Installing Balance Wheels

One of the most essential tasks that you need to master to progress in your craft is removing and installing balance wheels. It can be a tricky task, but once you get comfortable with it, you’ll be on your way to the next level in watch repair. That said, it’s also one of those things that can lead to a lot of trouble if not done correctly. Unfortunately, repair techniques for balance wheels are advanced and require special tools. But don’t worry, I’m here to give you some guidelines and tips to master this task like a pro. So, let’s take a closer look at this critical part of watch repair.

Preventing Damage to the Balance Wheel

Preventing a problem before it happens is one of the most important things you can learn in watch repair. When you’re disassembling a watch movement, it’s a good practice to take out the balance wheel and pallet fork at the beginning, which could prevent you from damaging the balance wheel in your disassembly. Before we start working on the movement, the first thing we want to do is let down the power.

 You can achieve this by holding the crown in your fingertips and then releasing the click from the ratchet wheel, allowing the crown wheel to spin slowly and steadily between your fingertips until all the power is let out of the mainspring. Once all the power is out of the mainspring, the balance wheel will stop. If you are not familiar with the click spring, here is a post I did on the Keyless Works.

Releasing the Click
Releasing the Click

Mounting the Movement Holder and Removing the Balance Wheel

It’s essential to make sure that the movement is mounted into the movement holder so that the balance cock is in a place where you have unobstructed access to the point where you’re going to pick it up. You wouldn’t want the balance cock sitting in the wrong position. So, find the best position in the movement holder to work on the balance wheel. Finally, the balance is held in place by one screw and a couple of steady pins under the balance cock. These pins provide extra support and alignment for the balance wheel, so it’s essential not to damage them while removing or installing the balance wheel.

Movement Mounted in Holder with Balance Cock Access
Movement Mounted in Holder with Balance Cock Access

Guidelines for Removing and Installing Balance Wheels

When it comes to removing and installing balance wheels, it’s important to pay close attention to the process to avoid any mishaps that could cause damage to your timepiece. Before you get started, take a good look at the balance cock and the main plate for the slot to separate the cock.

Slot to remove cock from main plate
Slot to remove cock from the main plate

 Because steady pins provide tight alignment, you won’t be able to use your tweezers to separate the parts. Don’t force anything – this is a good opportunity to learn what not to do. Instead, insert your screwdriver into the slot and give it a slight twist to separate the balance cock from the main plate.

Screwdriver in Slot
Screwdriver in Slot

Now that you’ve removed the screw, the first guideline is to ensure you pick up the balance cock securely with your tweezers.

securely picking up balance cock
securely picking up the balance cock

Releasing the Impulse Jewel and Removing the Balance Wheel

 Remember that the pivots of both the balance wheel and the pallet fork are the smallest in the movement, and extreme care is required. Under the balance wheel, you’ll find an impulse jewel sitting in the pallet fork slot that needs to be released in the safest way possible when you remove the balance wheel. 

To do this, lift up the balance wheel a little bit and then turn the movement holder, which will release the impulse pin from the pallet fork slot. Once it’s released, tip up your movement and lift it out.

Releasing the balance wheel from the fork slot
Releasing the balance wheel from the fork slot

 Be sure to avoid stretching out the hairspring from its normal hanging position, as this can negatively affect the movement’s running. Lastly, when you take the balance out, you can either store it on a tool called a balance tack, or simply lay it down and use your tweezers to flip it over gently, making sure the pivot is in the upper jewel. Always remember to proceed with caution and care, and follow these guidelines for a successful balance wheel removal and installation.

Balance flipped over for storage
Balance flipped over for storage

Removing and Installing the Pallet Fork

Alright, now that we’ve successfully removed the balance wheel, it’s time to move on to the next step in our watch repair process: removing the pallet fork. This is a delicate operation, so we need to exercise great care and attention to detail.

Removing the Pallet Fork

 The pallet fork bridge is usually held in place by two screws and two steady pins, so we’ll begin by removing those screws. Once we’ve done that, we can use our screwdriver to gently separate the pallet fork bridge away from the pivot on the pallet fork, and then lift the bridge straight up.

Pallet fork and bridge
Pallet fork and bridge

 As we do this, we need to be extremely careful not to damage any of the delicate parts of the pallet fork. When it comes time to remove the pallet fork, we want to make sure we’re picking it up by the pallet fork shaft or arm, being mindful to pick it up straight and not at an angle that could damage the jewels.

Removing Pallet fork by the arm
Removing the Pallet fork by the arm

 One thing to note is that, at this stage, the escape wheel may spin a little due to residual energy in the mainspring, but this is nothing to worry about. However, we need to be careful not to remove the pallet fork when the mainspring is still under power, as that could result in damage to the jewels. As we remove and handle each component, we need to make sure we’re not just dropping them into the parts tray, but instead laying them in gently. 

Understanding the Components of the Pallet Fork

Taking a closer look at the pallet fork, we can see that it has several key components, including the entry and exit jewels, pivots, pallet fork shaft or arm, slot, guard pin, and pallet fork horns.

The Pallet Fork
The Pallet Fork

While we won’t delve into the specifics of how the escapement works just yet, it’s important to have a basic understanding of these parts and their functions as we progress through the repair process.

The Importance of Shellac in Watch Repair

One of the important aspects of watch repair is the use of shellac. As you look at the underside of the pallet fork, you’ll notice that the pallet stones are held in place with shellac, which can be softened by heat to allow adjustments to be made to the escapement.

Pallet fork shellac
Pallet fork shellac

Similarly, as we examine the underside of the balance wheel, we can see the safety roller that holds the impulse jewel, the component responsible for moving in and out of the slot on the pallet fork which is also held by shellac.

Impulse pin inserted into safety roller
Impulse pin inserted into safety roller

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Now, when we put the pieces back together, it’s important to remember that the powertrain cannot be installed with the pallet fork and balance wheel in place. Instead, the powertrain should be installed first, followed by the pallet fork and balance wheel.

 We’ll begin by laying the pallet fork in position and adding the pallet fork bridge, ensuring that the steady pins and screw holes are aligned. We can then check the upper pallet jewel to make sure it’s rotating properly and screw in the screws just enough to feel resistance. Recheck the pallet porks rotation in its jewels, then finish tightening the screws.

Checking Pallet fork pivot alignment
Checking Pallet fork pivot alignment

Before installing the balance wheel, we need to move the pallet fork to the correct position. 

While holding the balance wheel in the cock, we can flip it over and take note of the impulse jewel’s position. The impulse jewel should enter from the top side of the pallet fork, as it lays against the banking pin so that it can slide into the pallet fork slot as we turn the balance.

Pallet fork position for reinstalling the balance wheel
Pallet fork position for reinstalling the balance wheel

Finally, we’ll add a couple of winds to the mainspring and check that the escape wheel and pallet fork are operating as they should.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Watch Repair

As you proceed with watch repair, one of the basic tasks is removing and installing balance wheels. When it comes to this task, a common challenge that watchmakers encounter is moving the pallet fork to the other side of the banking pin when you are trying to install the balance wheel.

This could lead to the impulse pin being outside the pallet fork horns, causing the balance wheel to spin briefly but stop abruptly. To address this issue, we need to take the balance wheel and slide it under the second wheel roughly in its position, then turn the movement holder and gently lay the balance cock in position. 

We must carefully maneuver the balance wheel around until the screw hole of the cock is lined up with the screw hole in the main plate.

Sometimes a little shake of the movement holder will do the trick and the balance wheel will fall right into place. Once in position, we can put the screw on. 

One thing to keep in mind is that we may need to get the balance wheel rotating when there is no power on it.

In this case, we can use a generic Dust Blower like this or a fine-tip artist brush to flick the balance wheel and get it moving. Whatever we do, we should not use our fingers to flick it or blow on the balance wheel with our breath, as this will add moisture to the balance spring and cause rust.

Generic Puffer
Generic Puffer

In conclusion, removing and installing balance wheels and pallet forks are essential tasks in the watch repair process. While it can be challenging, taking the time to learn and understand the process can help you progress in your craft and take your watch repair skills to the next level. It’s crucial to exercise care and attention to detail throughout the process, from removing the screws and steady pins to picking up the delicate components with tweezers.

By following the guidelines and tips outlined in this article, you can successfully remove and install balance wheels and pallet forks like a pro, while avoiding mishaps that could cause damage to your timepiece. Remember, patience, practice, and a keen eye for detail are essential qualities for any successful watchmaker.