Personal Time

How I’m building watches by hand in my home workshop

July 9, 2015
Reading Time
4 minutes

As a designer and engineer at IDEO, there are many moments when I think to myself, how might I make something like that? The act of bringing ideas from concept to reality is incredibly rewarding, and I love the challenge. Every time I see something I/we made in someone else’s hands, I feel pretty darn good. For this reason, when I am not building in the IDEO shop, I am at home, in my own small shop, continuing to make things.

About two years ago, I started a weekend project based on my obsession with watches, which are functional objects that are also beautifully designed. I started learning about the mechanisms, also known as the “movements,” of mechanical watches. I tore apart tons of watches I bought secondhand, and eventually, I designed my own watch around a movement that I had salvaged from a vintage watch. In a single weekend, I created my first watch, machining some parts and 3D printing the rest. I was hooked.

I designed a second watch, 3D printing prototype cases and machining dials to test some of the engineering and architectural decisions I made and to see how the design looked and felt on my wrist. 3D printing allowed me to quickly iterate the design and engineering until I was happy and had a functional timepiece on my wrist. Throughout this process, however, I couldn’t help thinking about manufacturing small batches of watches, wondering how watch cases are made today and how they were made traditionally. Could I use traditional watchmaking techniques while also leveraging modern advancements in manufacturing and prototyping to create some awesome watches?

I set my sights on making a watch case and dial from raw materials, by hand, and showcasing the process as it happened.

Documenting the manufacturing process of a watch part is quite unusual in the watchmaking world. The vast majority of watch companies do not produce watch parts “in house,” but contract vendors in Switzerland, China, or Germany. And those who do make their own parts don’t like to share how they do it because it’s a trade secret. But for this project, I’m just interested in making what I can, with the tools and parts I have available to me, and being fully transparent about it.

Instead of asking outside vendors to make pieces for me, I wanted to do some small-scale manufacturing in my shop, by hand. It’s less efficient, but this is less about truly designing to scale and more about getting super into a process I enjoy. I began producing the first parts of the case on my Hardinge lathe, cutting the outside diameters and curves. Once that was done, I built a couple of quick fixtures for the lathe blank and proceeded to run many more operations, with different tooling, on my CNC milling machine. I then machined the dial, movement holder, and case back.

This process was effective, but it was slow and required lots of precision when re-locating the parts between operations. After a couple weeks of work, I finished this watch and started rethinking the process.

For my next attempt, I tried reversing the steps between milling and turning. I first started with flat stock, milling the profiles and details and creating the curves on the outer case on the lathe afterward. This process seemed to yield reasonable results, but had some of the same problems as the previous process, so it was back to the drawing board.

At this point, I had a stroke of good luck: I was able to acquire a small collection of deadstock vintage mechanical movements that I could put into my future watches. With a quick redesign, the watches were ready for these new, higher quality mechanisms.

After consulting with some local machinists, I designed a new strategy to fixture the parts and created a process that utilized 2D “near net” profiled blanks of material in the initial stage. These blanks are produced for me by local a vendor in Massachusetts. They provide a form that is easy to hold in the machines, and using them reduces the amount of time it takes to machine the cases, because they come to me with a lot a material removed. With this development, it’s now looking like I am ready to move on to one of the trickier aspects of this project, which is making more parts—beyond just the cases and dials—in house. Hands and crowns are next on the list.

A lot of people ask me when I’m going to make the insides, or the “movement” of the watch. I won’t kid anyone here: Making a movement from scratch is a full-time job and requires expertise that I don’t currently have. However, I have made some parts of watch movements, and I’ve collaborated to reverse-engineer and redesign existing watch movements to help enable another watch company to remake some of its parts in the U.S.

That, in fact, is the trickiest— and often the most marketable—piece of the watchmaking puzzle: Coming up with a way to provide a predominantly American watch movement. American companies once lead the watchmaking industry, but that time has passed (no pun intended), and we have yet to see a large resurgence in American watchmaking. It’s quite tricky these days, as the specialized manufacturing machinery is scarce, and the technological knowhow and familiarity with modern watch manufacturing processes are predominantly found overseas.

So here is the bigger question: How might we, as a group of watchmaking enthusiasts in the U.S., collaborate to revitalize a manufacturing effort to provide American-made watches to the world once again? I know others are having this conversation as well, and there is some real competition to be the first to solve this challenge. But what if we work together instead of competing? What could we achieve if, instead of keeping secrets and trying to be the only guy on the block, we collaborate and document our processes? We could definitely make some awesome stuff… And I like making awesome stuff.

Follow along online on my TumblrInstagram, and Twitter for more of the process as it unfolds.