Explained: Whats involved in a watch service and should I have it done?

What is a watch service?

I often get asked what is it I actually do when I service a watch, what’s involved and is it really necessary? My entire website is full of different watches being serviced and I wanted to make it clearer exactly what steps each watch goes through in the process of its service whilst with me.

There really isn’t too many different ways it can be done if its being done correctly, and all luxury watch services whether carried out by the brand or a competent independent watchmaker will follow the stages below:

  1. Disassembly and movement checks.
  2. Cleaning.
  3. Reassembly and lubrication.
  4. Regulation.
  5. Testing.
  6. Quality control.

If the watch is to be serviced correctly none of the above steps can be missed and all must be carried out accurately, this is time consuming and the only way it can be done is manually by a watchmaker – there really are no short cuts.

Step 1. Disassembly and movement checks.

The first stage of every watch service is disassembly of the movement, the movement has to be completely stripped down to each component part, this ensures the watch cleaning machine can do its job correctly, making sure that each part is completely clean prior to reassembly. Every part also has to be checked for any signs of damage or wear as it is removed, this is done under magnification and if any parts are found to be defective for any reason they must be replaced. If something is missed at this stage of the service it will come back to bite the watchmaker at a later stage when the movement fails to perform as it should. Numerous other checks are carried out at this stage such as end shakes, side shakes, flatness and concentricity of the hairspring, all issues and faults are rectified at this point.

Above images show 3 examples of parts found during servicing that must be replaced.

The first picture is a barrel, this houses the mainspring that provides power to the movement, teeth within the highlighted circle are damaged, if not replaced the watch will stop.

Second is a very worn pivot on a reversing wheel (part of the automatic device), if not replaced it will soon snap and cause issues once it arrives back with the customer.

Finally an out of shape click spring (top) together with the new in shape one (bottom). Sometimes these can be bent back to shape but this one is quite severe. If left it will cause winding issues as this is the part of the movement that prevents the watch from unwinding itself.

Step 2. Cleaning.

Once I am certain the movement has had the necessary parts replaced and all adjustments have been made, the next stage is cleaning. The movement needs to be completely clean before reassembly so that nothing can interfere with the running of it, a watch is a very finely balanced machine and it doesn’t take much to stop it. All old oil, dirt and debris must be removed before it can be reassembled and lubricated.

What is a watch service?

The cleaning machine is made up of various jars containing different chemicals designed to remove all foreign particles from the movement whilst not damaging the watch movement itself.

Step 3. Reassembly and lubrication.

At this point any damaged parts have been replaced, all necessary adjustments have been made and the movement is now completely clean. It is time to begin reassembly, the movement has to be carefully oiled as it is rebuilt to ensure it functions as its designed to. Without oil there would be too much friction caused by metal acting against metal and it just wouldn’t function well, time keeping would likely be poor, the keyless functions likely wouldn’t work and could possibly lead to damage when the crown is pulled out, together with a whole host of other issues. Lubricating the watch to the manufacturers specifications is extremely important for the watch to function within the tolerances it has been designed to. Oil drying up is often one of the first issues to occur if a watch isn’t serviced within 5 years or so, this lack of oil then causes friction, closely followed by worn and damaged parts.

In order to know where to oil, brands produce technical guides, the first photo shows part of one such guide. It shows the watchmaker exactly where each part goes, where to oil it and what oil to use. With the more common movements these guides become second nature.

Second picture shows me oiling a centre seconds jewel on a Rolex 3185 movement with the correct HP 1000 oil as Rolex calls for.

Step 4. Regulation.

Once the movement is back up and running it needs to be regulated. A timegrapher is used to carry out this step of the service, listening to the sounds that a watch escapement produces (the part of the movement responsible for time keeping), the timegrapher is able to provide a visual display of various parameters of the watch performance, one being the rate in seconds that the watch is either gaining or losing per day. It can then be adjusted to within tolerances of the movement in question, there are a few other parameters checked here along with the rate of the watch.

What is a watch service?

In the above image a recently serviced Rolex is being tested on the timgegrapher, the watch is checked in various positions to ensure it is running to tolerances in all.

Step 5. Testing.

Once the service is complete and after water resistance tests have been carried out, the watch moves onto a period of testing. Personally I usually test the watch over a period of 5 days, although this can vary from watch to watch. The main aim of testing is to ensure the watch and all its functions are performing as they should, and includes the following :

  1. Power reserve checks – the amount of time the watch will run from full power to stopping.
  2. Real time, time keeping checks – time keeping is checked on the timegrapher but also in real time.
  3. Automatic winding – an automatic winding wheel is used to check the watch winds up as it should.
  4. 24 hr time keeping test – time keeping is checked after 24 hours to ensure it is still within tolerances with a slightly depleted power reserve.
  5. Date change – If the watch is fitted with a date the watch is monitored to ensure it advances.
  6. Chronograph tests – if applicable the watch will be tested with the chronograph running to ensure it doesn’t cause any issues with the running of the watch.

Not an exhaustive list but every watch needs to pass all of the above before it can be deemed ready to be returned to the customer.

what's involved in a watch service

A Rolex GMT Master II having its automatic device tested on the winding wheel.

Step 6. Quality control.

Once all the above steps have been completed and the watch has successfully passed its testing phase, it will then move onto quality control. Quality control is the final stage before the watch is ready for dispatch and involves checking one final time the functions and various aspects of the watch to ensure nothing has been missed and everything is performing as expected before its return to the customer.

In answer to the question of should you have your watch serviced – yes, you absolutely should. In fact at some point you will definitely have to because something will be sure to go wrong, so it comes down to more a question of when. Most brands recommend a full service is carried out every 5 years or so, which Is what I would recommend to ensure your watch is running correctly and performing as it should. However if all otherwise seems well and you miss this by a year or 2, it most likely won’t be the end of the world, just be aware that by this point oils will be drying out and the chance for damage to occur increases quite significantly which can result in increased servicing costs due to the cost of parts. In the end it comes down to the decision of each individual owner and what they are most comfortable with.

All watches serviced by The Watch Professional go through the above 6 steps and whilst every watch calibre is different and the actual physical task of servicing a watch varied, the process is always the same. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes and no magic answers to watch servicing, done correctly following these steps, it is time consuming and a very skilled process that requires a meticulous attention to detail and takes years of experience to become proficient at, even after 15 years and considered experienced I am still learning and most likely always will be, but I love my job and there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing!

As always thanks for reading, I hope this article goes some way to help clear up exactly what goes into a watch service, and if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to contact me either via email or feel free to send me a message via my contact page.

The Watch Professional

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