Cheap Fix for a Quartz Watch




About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

This is my Seiko quartz analog watch. It is almost 19 years old.. In recent months have I noticed it slowly drifts a couple of minutes from the correct time. I checked prices for cleaning and lubrication through an on-line watchmaker. By the time all fees are paid, repair costs would be almost equal to the price of a new watch. Repairs could cost more yet if any parts need replacement. Similar watches to mine are available on eBay and I might be able to find one for less with a movement I could substitute in my watch case, if all dimensions are the same. But, that would be a big risk. Because this watch was given to me by my wife on our 25th wedding anniversary I really want to keep it rather than replace it.

Step 1: A Local Watchmaker

We live a couple of miles from one of only a few a watchmakers in our very metropolitan area. Because droplets of moisture have sometimes gotten into the watch and condensed on the inside of the crystal, I wanted to talk with him about cleaning and lubricating the watch. The watch also stopped recently, but I got it going again by gently poking with a toothpick at the wheel that drives the second hand. I thought there may be a tiny piece of debris inside the watch, and cleaning would be a very good idea. The watchmaker has a very thick foreign accent and shook his head, "No!" when I asked about cleaning. He said, "New battery! One year!" When the watch was new, the first battery lasted 7 years. I have 3 1/2 years on the present battery. This watch is still supposed to keep accurate time when the battery is getting low, but the second hand begins to jump in 2 second increments every 2 seconds as a sign the battery needs to be changed. I have not seen that, yet, so I assume the battery still has some life in it..Still, some sites urge replacing the battery every two years, even if no inaccuracy problems are evident. I do not know if it makes a difference, but the watch came with a silver-oxide battery. The present battery is an alkaline battery.

  • Spanner wrench to remove the back
  • Ballpoint pen or jeweler's screwdriver to depress the stem lock
  • Canned air with a guide tube
  • Rubber cement or a properly sized "O"-ring
The photo shows me pretending to be a watchmaker.

Step 2: A Really Bad Idea That Worked

I decided to attempt blowing a little compressed air through the watch movement in order to remove any loose dirt that might be slowing my watch.* It is generally a bad idea to assault fine mechanical devices with air under pressure.** I began by removing the back. See this Instructable on making a wrench for backs that unscrew. 

*Those who know say dirty watches are apt to run fast, even though that seems counter-intuitive. Mine was running slow.

**After posting this Instructable, I found and read some articles on quartz watch problems. One article suggested the very thing I decided to do in this Instructable, which is to blow out the movement with compressed air in order to remove loose debris from dried and flaked oil. 

Step 3: Take the Movement Out of the Case

Update: If possible, you may want to avoid removing the movement from the case. A few days after doing this Instructable, I decided to tinker with the watch just one more time. When I finished the stem would not go back into place fully. I probably could have lifted the movement enough to use the compressed air as described in step 4 without removing the stem. Now that I cannot get the stem back into place, I will either need to pay a watchmaker to repair the watch, or put the watch aside in a drawer.

Lift the plastic retainer out of the watch case and depress the lock that holds the stem in the movement. The stem must be pressed inward as far as possible. The locking piece disappears when the stem is pulled outward without releasing the lock. On Seiko watches the stem lock is very often a springy piece of metal near the stem and it has a small hole in it. Look in the photo near the end of the toothpick. See also the second photo. Push downward on the piece with the hole while pulling the stem out of the watch case. A ballpoint pen works well enough for this, or you may use a jeweler's screwdriver. A toothpick splinters and leaves debris in the watch case.

Step 4: Canned Air

I used short bursts of canned air I bought at an office supply store. This is the kind of canned air that is free of dust and humidity. It is often used to blow dust from inside a computer. I tried to avoid spraying air at the delicate watch hands to avoid pushing them hard if blocked and to avoid bending them, but I focused on aiming air into the open sides of the watch's movement. If this were a mechanical watch with a balance wheel to regulate the movement, I would be very careful with pressurized air near the dainty spring on the balance wheel. 

(When assembling the watch in its case, do not force the stem through the case and back into the movement too hard. A little pressure is needed, but too much may mean something is not properly aligned or installed in the proper orientation.)

Step 5: Checking the Results

A watch needs to run 24 hours to determine what effect adjustments have made in the performance and accuracy of the watch. I chose to use the World Clock application on my phone to check my watch's accuracy. I could also have used the clock face that opens in the lower right corner on my Windows PC screen. Choose one clock and do all checking with it. Clocks that are supposedly steered by an atomic clock somewhere can vary from one another by a second or two, and mixing clocks could make you think your watch is less accurate than it actually is. Notice the red second hands in the photo all indicating 55 seconds.* I synchronized my watch and its second hand with the display in this World Clock app. So far it appears that my watch is running accurately again, and it cost me almost nothing. Try this on your own watch with caution. It is, as I mentioned, a really bad idea, but one that did work very well for me.

*The black clock faces indicate it was dark in those parts of the world when this photo was taken. The clock faces are white during hours of daylight in the respective parts of the world. Still, the second hands on these clocks are easy to see. 

Step 6: Gasket

I could probably get a new "O"-ring gasket for the back of my watch through a jeweler or a watchmaker. My gasket stretched and I discarded it.* But, if I need to replace the battery only every several years, I will start the threads on the watch's back. Then I will smear some common rubber cement into the gap between the back and the watch case. I will tighten the back the rest of the way. I should get a good seal I can still open again easily when I need to access the battery, and no shreds of hardened cement should reach the delicate moving parts in the works. I have actually worn my watch for a few months without a gasket or a seal. Moisture has not collected inside the crystal if I was not perspiring. 

"O"-rings for watches are available from Amazon and from watchmaker's supply houses, like Esslinger. Some are sold in assortments and some individually. Unfortunately, Seiko uses part numbers rather than dimensions on its "O"-rings and I have not found a key to the numbers so I can order the right gasket for my watch. The Esslinger site also has some tutorial information for the amateur.

The graphic is a depiction of an "O"-ring, including a cross sectional view. The diameter of the material and the internal diameter are the key measurements for a watch back.

*The gaskets that seal various parts of a watch degrade over time and need replacement periodically. 

Step 7: Bonus: How a Quartz Watch Works

It is not advisable for the home tinkerer to remove screws and parts on a quartz movement. But, at this link, you can read about how quartz watches work. In summary, current from a battery causes a quartz tuning fork to vibrate at 32,728 times per second. A micro-processor divides these vibrations and sends a pulse to a stepper motor once every second. The motion generated by the stepper motor is divided by factors of 60 to move the minute hand and the hour hand.

The photo shows the inside parts of a common, inexpensive quartz clock movement. The little can is the quartz tuning fork. The copper coil that is part of the stepper motor is also visible, as are the gears that break down the motion of the second hand for minutes and hours. The micro-processor is on a small circuit board inside what you can see, as is the rest of the stepper motor. (I once did an Instructable on modifying a quartz clock movement with a switch for timing oneself during public speaking.)

This is one of my very few adventures in watch repair. I know nothing about watch and clock repair. There are forums on watch repair on the Internet. Please take your questions about problems you are having to those. There are also books available for sale or in your public library on watch repair. 



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    10 Discussions


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Phil, you should never use alkaline batteries in watches. Their discharge curve is steep enough to cause timing errors long before the watch stops working. Mercury batteries used to be the standard before our Glorious Leaders outlawed them as an environmental problem. Silver oxide is the preferred watch battery; not quite as good as mercury, but much better than alkaline.

    1 reply
    Phil Bgizmologist

    Reply 3 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you. I think I went to Radio Shack and alkaline batteries were all they had for watches. It seems watch batteries are more difficult to find, and I did not want to try several more places. I will keep you counsel in mind for the next time.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    hey there! i just posted an insturctable on my watch and i was wondering if we have the same problem. Could you check it out and see? thanks

    Phil B

    6 years ago on Introduction

    Perhaps you missed the part where I mentioned this watch was a gift from my wife and I wanted to preserve for reasons of sentiment.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I find it hard to believe that dirt that would slow a watch down could be blown out. Presumably, it would be in the bearings, mixed up with the oil, and not affected by blowing air. Or if there were big "cobwebs" that were rubbing on the surface of the gears, but that seems unlikely. Did you observe any visible dirt coming out? It could be that the mere act of taking it apart and putting it back together improved the conductivity of the battery contacts, or something else that had nothing to do with the blowing air. Still, it's hard to argue with success, so whatever it was, it's great that you got it working properly! Just taking it apart and putting it back together without breaking it is a major accomplishment! And you followed it up with a great instructable! Thanks for sharing! P.S., I prefer digital watches with lots of features like count-down-timer, alarm, etc and they have the added advantage of no moving parts to get gummed up.

    1 reply
    Phil Bcody305

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    I have been looking at additional articles on the Internet. Allegedly oil can dry out in time and form flakes, which I assume can migrate to other parts of the watch. Particles of dead skin that might get into a watch when the case was opened to change the battery, etc. are difficult to detect, but can cause all sorts of problems with a watch. It would be almost impossible to notice a particle of something exiting the watch when sprayed with pressurized air.

    My watch actually stopped twice for me over the last 19 years. The first time it was probably 5 to 10 years old. I took it to a jeweler and asked about cleaning then. He told me it was not needed. I do not think the battery was replaced then, either. He examined the watch movement for a few minutes, put it back together, and handed it to me. Then it stopped again a couple of months ago as I mentioned. That was when I gently poked the wheel that drives the second hand, and it started again. These two incidents led me to think a light piece of something may have gotten into the works, perhaps when I had the back off to change the battery, etc.

    I still have a couple of inexpensive digital watches in a drawer. They would work with a new battery, but have lots of ugly scars from daily wear in years past.

    Thank you for looking and for commenting. It has been a day and a half since I last tinkered with the watch and the accuracy of the second hand's indications seems not to have varied. Seiko specifies a gain/loss accuracy of up to 15 seconds per month for their watches. I am anxious to see how much variation I actually have after a month.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Make sure to test your watch's accuracy at ROOM TEMPERATURE. 40 degree F change in either direction can effect the watch by upto a second a day, slow or fast.

    ESPECIALLY since you blew out your watch with canned air, you NEED to re-lube the geartrain. Even if you hadn't... every 6-8 years, it should be lubricated. Just like your car needs oil changes in it's transmission, so does your watch. the lubricating qualities will deteriorate, and can eventually turn from a lube to an abrasive, as dust, dirt, and metal particles saturate the oil and the oil itself breaks down over time and wear.
    a good quality oiling and cleaning every other battery replacement(using silver-oxide cells) will extend the life of your watch for many decades.

    Finally, just break down and replace the o-ring. $5 MAX and then you KNOW it's good to go for another couple years. IF you ever see ANY condensation on the crystal of your watch, GET IT SERVICED. Yes it's expensive, but if you want that watch to keep working, and maintaining accuracy, it needs to have ALL the moisture removed, and the oil replaced. And a new battery while you're at it, for good measure. It will be a small price to pay to maintain your precious piece of horology for generations to come.

    the silver oxide batteries have a MUCH better discharge curve, and longer lifespan.

    The silver-oxide will run a flat voltage until almost completely dead. It should last many years of use in a watch. Also works better in wide variety of temps. replacement should take place every 3-5 years, to prevent risk of leakage. That's 5 years from the date on the package, not from when it's installed.

    The alkaline battery that you have in there now, is a higher CURRENT battery, but lower capacity. If your watch had an active backlight(press the button, and it glows) then this would be the better choice. they suffer from having 2/3ds or less capacity, and a less stable voltage. They still have plenty of "juice" left by the time their voltage has dropped to unusable levels. Replacement SHOULD occur once a year to maintain accuracy and safety.

    Now, when you get into a LESS EXPENSIVE and SENSITIVE application, things change a bit.
    joule-thief circuits will eek the last drop of juice from an alkaline cell, and not care about the sagging voltage. These qualities make the more common and less expensive alkaline a better choice of power. Also, the risk of leaking is highest when the battery is deeply discharged, but in a disposable circuit, we don't really care. or even if we DO care, we can design the project case to contain the leak away from the rest of the device.

    1 reply

    6 years ago on Introduction

    Decidedly you have heavenly guardians to try such a delicate fix on the cheap :-)

    1 reply
    Phil Biceng

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you for looking and for commenting. Mostly, I can be incredibly cheap. I am hoping it will be helpful to someone else. It might also be of use to someone who wants to buy a used watch on eBay.