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Posts Tagged ‘tinkering’

Image1I found this little Raketa alarm clock at the weekend. It was on a junk stall,and the seller wanted £1.50 for it. It’s an old clockwork model, and wasn’t running. You can buy a new alarm clock, pretty much like this one for a couple of quid these days, a modern battery version – so £1.50 for a broken clock might not seem much of a bargain, but I like stripping and cleaning old clocks and seeing if I can get them going. Human beings aren’t always logical creatures and our emotional drivers are usually too complex to explain to others. Indeed, if we have to explain them at all, we’re probably wasting our breath and better finding someone else to talk to.

Like broken human beings, what old clocks and watches like this are mostly suffering from is neglect. This one was simply gummed up with decades old 3 in 1 oil, and it responded well to a bit of TLC. I dismantled it, cleaned it up in white spirit, then reassembled and sparingly oiled the jewels with proper watch oil. It was very satisfying to see it come to life.

The unassuming exterior of the Raketa hides a very fine 19 jewel movement, originally designed for a pocket-watch, but adapted to take a nicely engineered timer and striker mechanism. By contrast the modern alarm clock is not designed to come apart much, other than to change a battery. They are not intended for repair. If it broke, you’d throw it away. This is the natural evolution of Capital, to make something deliberately beyond economic repair from the outset.

With an occasional service by a watchmaker, the Raketa will last a hundred years, but at forty quid a service who’s going to pay that? There’ll be no watchmakers in a hundred years, only tinkerers like me. Clocks and watches like this are to be our natural inheritance, also the reasons why we bother in the first place.

The Raketa was built in Soviet era Russia, a period when east-west tensions had us all talking about Nuclear Armageddon, a period that taught me there was no surviving such a thing, that the lucky ones would be those sitting under the first bombs as they fell – at least in Europe where the population density is high and the targeted cities are insufficiently far apart to provide safe havens in between. In a nuclear war, there are no safe havens, you see? You either die fast or you die slow – and the former is obviously preferable. What you cannot do is survive. And those weapons haven’t gone away, we managed to pretend for a while they had, but now we’re talking about them again, talking up the likelihoood of a nuclear war.

Imagine the other side have launched their nukes (Russia, North Korea). You’re going to die one way or the other. What would you do? Launch yours as well, simply to ensure the other side is wiped out along with you? Imagine you have a potential leader who says they wouldn’t hesitate to do it, that their readiness to do it is in fact our best defence. Or you have another potential leader who says they’d not launch under any circumstances, that it was immoral. Who would you vote for? And what kind of civilisation would be asking such questions in the first place?

But we were talking about clocks.

Time-pieces interest me on many levels. On the scientific and engineering level it’s a question of how you design a device to accurately shadow the movement of the earth with respect to the sun and provide a globally synchronised reference for conducting human affairs, so for example sixteen hundred hours on the twelfth of January 2027 means the same to everyone. But we can also think in more philosophical and existential terms, a time-piece being then a construct that maps our place in time, the hands sweeping up the history of our lives as they circle.

I prefer mechanical timepieces, even though they are less accurate. There’s something about analogue mechanisms being themselves a metaphor of life – each piece visible, open to scrutiny and doing its bit, responding to the rhythm of life, its function being to assist in recording the history of its greater self.

My little Raketa has known a great deal of modern history – it’s perhaps thirty or forty years old. It’s known the ending of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. But I’m not sure how long its been asleep, and what it’s missed – a couple of gulf wars perhaps, the Syrian civil war, Libya,the European refugee crisis? What it will witness in the future one can only guess – the breakup of the European Union seems likely, also Scottish independence, the forced reunification of Ireland, and perhaps a new American war with North Korea?

Perhaps I’d’ve been better leaving it on the shelf. Some things I’m sure, like me, it would rather not know about. I’m reminded that I retire in 2020, that alarm clocks will then no longer be necessary, though I could make a decent hobby out of tinkering with old clocks and watches – and writing of course. A question for myself then: do I build a writing cabin in the back garden, or a nuclear bunker?

It has to be a writing cabin. The nuclear bunker is a waste of time, though I notice they are very much back in vogue.

Duck and cover?

Yea right!

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From A to B

bernexMy apologies to the other bidder who was after this rather nice looking Bernex. I know it doesn’t help now, but I assure you I would not have bid any higher than the £22 it went for, so you should have kept going, added that extra 50p and clinched it. But that’s the curse of auctions, online or otherwise, isn’t it? If we’re not careful we get carried away, ego takes over, and we’re damn well going to have the thing, no matter what it costs. The only winner then is the auction house. So, in this case we both stuck to our limits and in that way we were both winners. I may have clinched the actual prize this time, but the goddess of restraint has had me miss out on it often enough in the past.

But here’s the thing: what I really wanted was the Montine that closed five minutes after the Bernex, and which I suspected most vintage horologists had taken their eye from in single minded pursuit of the Bernex, and which I’d therefore imagined I could nail pretty cheap. Sure enough, the Montine went for just £14 and would have made a more ideal tinkertoy, but by then my pocket money was spent and I had to let it go. From past experience I thought the Bernex would have sailed on up to £50 or £60, which goes to show you just never can tell with auctions. It comes down to the mood of the day, perhaps even the phase of the moon.

The seller said it winds and runs, and it does. The seller said the timekeeping had not been measured and in any case could not be guaranteed, but I find it keeps time reasonably well. There’s some wear of the plating on the case, and it needs a new glass, but other than that it has survived the years with dignity – except for that disgusting Fixoflex strap – remorseless nipper of the hairy wrist! Uggh!

Polished, a new glass, a decent strap, and professionally serviced, this one could sit happily in the vintage section of the posh jeweller’s window with a price tag of maybe a hundred, or a hundred and fifty pounds. I hesitate therefore to tinker, to strip it to bits, to clean and oil and regulate, to risk losing the screws to the carpet, or bending the balance, or marking this fine seventy year old dial with a careless slip of a screwdriver blade.

The rickety old Avia I wrote about a while ago, and which I’d not wanted to die on my watch, died on my watch. The balance jewels turned to dust when I cleaned them, and an intricate repair to the lever, carried out in the mists of time, and under the lupe of a man more masterful at the art than I, came undone. At best I now I have an Anton Schild movement as spares for the more robust bits that tend never to be needed. I don’t want the Bernex to go the same way, end its days in the ignominy of my bit-box. It is not a Rolex, just as it is not a Rolls Royce, but even a Ford Focus man like me can enjoy those rare moments when mass produced stuff has a quality about it that shines.

Anyway.

£22 is about the cost of dinner, an experience all too often questionable, and in any case gone in an hour, lingering in the memory only as indigestion. I do not dine out much these days, but for the same money I shall have many more hours of delicate tinkering with this old beauty, learning as I go, and this time I hope, another nice vintage gent’s dress watch to fill a gap in my collection of sensibly priced tickers – indeed a Bernex to add to my Avias!

Oh the joy of it.

 

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IMG_1921

The Ebay bug continues to bite. Search: Gents vintage watch. Maximum bid £20. To date I’ve managed to mend slightly more of them than I’ve junked. But let’s be honest, this “mending” has involved only patience in the stripping down, cleaning, oiling and reassembling. Anything broken or missing is, I fear, (usually) the death knell for the consumer grade tickers of yesteryear. I do not tinker with the luxury end of the market, nor anyone’s priceless family heirloom. One slip with a screwdriver and it’s game-over. That’s just too risky a business.

I’m sure you can still get hold of the delicate bits of Rolexes and Omegas dating back to the 1940’s, and that’s fine – those old beauties will survive for centuries, but a Timex, an Avia, or a Services? It is these consumer grade tickers that are the endangered species, beautiful in themselves but vulnerable to the misadventures of tinkerers and Bodger Bills like me. But I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – it’s up to the Bodger Bills to preserve these less prestigious makes, because their insignificant value means that when they stop, they are not worth a proper watch-maker’s time, and the bin is their usual fate.

My most recent project was rather a sorry looking Cardinal for which I paid ten pounds. All the gold plating was worn off and it was losing 5 minutes a day. But it was a valiant little specimen, keen to keep going, and for all of its poor time-keeping, it kept that poor time reliably, if you know what I mean.  The plan was to polish up the case to more of a chrome shine, clean and oil the mechanism and regulate it back into decent time-keeping.

The dial told me Cardinal was a Swiss manufacturer –  usually the mark of a watch designed to long outlive its original owner, but opening this specimen up revealed an uninteresting mechanism – purely functional, no flourish to it at all, and a little flimsy. It was made to market, product of a cost cutting era when the West still sought to rescue its share of consumer goods, under fierce competition from the East. We lost. We were never very good at going cheap, the secret being to somehow retain the soul of a thing, rather than it being the first thing we threw away, which we all too frequently did. Nowadays we still manage a decent fist of the luxury end of the market, but much of that is nostalgia for a time that probably never was and we shall never recover our prowess for GDP enhancing volume manufacture. At least not in my life-time.

So, I was disappointed in the mechanism, but you can’t argue over the price I paid for it and a clean in my little agitation tank, and some fresh oil got the rate back up to a more accurate attempt at 300 beats a minute. The beat itself was lopsided though – more tick-tick-a-tick than a smooth tick-tick-tick, but there was adequate adjustment to bring this back in line. After an evening of tinkering we had what looked like a promising return to good time-keeping, its daily losses now counted in fractions of a minute rather than multiples.

Meanwhile the case polished up very nicely indeed – all the remaining bits of gold removed and the base metal brought up to an impressive chrome shininess by successive layers of abrasive paper: 600 grit, 1200 grit, 2400 grit, then a good going over with Solvol metal polish and a fine buffing wheel on a Dremel drill. The result was pleasing – the time spent was enormously absorbing.

Then came reassembly, but I chose an inopportune time, the TV nagging in the corner of the room and one of those occasional familial spats kicking off around me. Watch tinkering requires focus. The lifting of every screwdriver, the unfastening of every screw, the withdrawal of every pin, the lifting of every plate. The smoothness, the focus, the deliberation, the intent, all guard against surprise, and against the panic that sometimes ensues when “surprise” happens. In this sense watch repair is like meditation. And like meditation, to begin with at least, we need a quiet room.

The plate was about five millimetres diameter, brass, a quarter of a millimetre in thickness, and had curled into it a spring, like a paperclip, but again very small, so I had not noticed it on strip down. I spotted it now through the loupe as it pivoted away, ready to fall. I caught it with the tweezers, breathed easy, teetering on the brink of disaster. Then the agitation around me reached a crescendo, broke through momentarily, caused a ripple of irritation on the still surface of my thoughts, a tremor of the hand,… and the spring literally dematerialised. One moment it was there, held safe in my tweezers, the next it was gone.

The spring was part of the mechanism that flips the date, a complication which, in the case of this watch was more complicated than any other I have encountered. The watch would still go back together, tell good time, I supposed, but that it would never know the date again was unfortunate. On the plus side, it was not a good quality watch, so I had not ruined much. But I had thought that if I could have got it running better and cleaned up to a more presentable shine, I could in all good conscience have resold it on the Bay as a more superior specimen than the one I’d bought, but alas it looked like I’d junked it, and all for the want of a spring the size of fly’s leg.

But a spring is a spring, fashioned from spring-steel, and I remembered I had it a-plenty from my torsion clock days. I chose a quieter time. No TV, no other people around. An hour under the loupe with snippers and pliers and a new spring took shape. It slotted into place snugly, held firm and performed crisply, pressing the tiny detent mechanism into the date wheel, so it stepped through the days properly. The Cardinal once more knew what day it was, as well as making a better stab at the time. And I began to feel less like a Bodger Bill and more like a watchmaker.

Nope – still a Bodger Bill, Michael.

I remember an old clockmaker showing me once a repair that had been made on a three hundred year old clock. The bit of bent iron crudely fashioned into an escapement mechanism I correctly identified as a discarded horseshoe. I was impressed by such ingenuity. The clockmaker was not.

I’ve worn it for a week now, and it does passably well – all right, sometimes it gains a minute, depending how I set it down at night, and then there’s a slackness in the train that makes the minute hand wander plus or minus a minute when you tap the watch, so the time will always be something of an average, no matter how well the beat is regulated. Alas I cannot release it back into the wild as anything other than another tinkerer’s tinker thing. Yes, it’s running slightly better than when I got it, but admittedly not much, and I would certainly not like to rely on it. But the watch tinkerer’s Cardinal rule is that we must accept much of the value in what we do is not in the end result of our actions, nor in the final bid price if we decide to sell, but in the journey we took the moment we flipped off the back.

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