How to Wind Watch: A Mechanical Watch Guide

In this post, you'll learn how to keep a mechanical watch wound up and how to take care of one so it lasts a lifetime.
Photo: Blake Buettner CC BY-ND 2

If you just bought your first mechanical watch, or you’re thinking about buying one, you might not know how to wind it and take care of it, so it lasts for decades. 

Winding a watch is straightforward and easy. It’s part of what makes owning a mechanical watch so unique.

To wind a watch, take it off your wrist and turn the crown clockwise 20 to 40 turns until you feel resistance. Now your watch is all wound up. 

To care for a mechanical watch, you have to keep it clean, avoid impacts, and have it serviced. Also, avoid steam and extreme temperatures, and adhere to its water resistance rating.

There’s more to it than this, though, if you want to avoid damaging your watch by accident. 

I’ve spent an entire day researching how to best care for a mechanical watch to create this guide.

Here, I’ll lay out everything you need to know if you own or are thinking about buying one. 

Let’s hop right in with a basic overview of mechanical watches.

Why You Have to Wind a Mechanical Watch

Mechanical watches are watches that have mechanical movements. A watch’s movement is the motor inside the watch that makes it run.

I wrote a whole article about watch movements here if you want to learn more about the different types.

Mechanical watch movements are unique because they don’t need a battery.

Instead, the watch’s power comes from a flat metal spring, called the mainspring.

Winding the watch adds tension to the spring. The slow release of this tension is what drives the inner machinery of the watch.

This spring can store a lot of energy, too.

The spring tension can power a mechanical watch for between 40 to 48 hours, depending on the watch. Some mechanical watches can even last up to 5 days after being fully wound.

A mechanical watch will stop when there is no more tension in the spring to drive the internal machinery.

This is why you must wind them consistently to keep them running.

Depending on the type of watch you have, though, you may not need to do the winding yourself.

Winding a Manual vs. an Automatic Watch

There are two types of mechanical watches: manual and automatic. The difference between the two is how hands-on they are.

The manual watch is the oldest type and also the most interactive. A manual watch must be hand-wound by the wearer regularly.

If you have a manual watch and don’t take the time to wind it up, it’ll stop running. When this happens, you’ll have to wind it and reset the time.

Many watch owners love their manual watches. They enjoy the daily interaction with their timepiece, and they’ve built a daily habit of winding their watch.

If you want a less hands-on watch, the automatic type is the best option.

Automatic watches have an extra piece built into the machinery. This piece is called a rotor, and it winds the watch while you wear it.

The rotor is weighted so that when you move your arm, it spins. When the rotor spins, it winds the watch.

These watches have a clutch mechanism, too. It disengages the rotor when the watch is fully wound.

In most cases, you’ll know a watch is automatic when you look at it.

You can see the rotor if the watch has an exhibition case (a window on the back) showing its movement. As you move the watch, you can see the rotor spin in the window.

Also, the watch dial (the watch’s face) will almost always have the word “automatic” written on it. An exception is a Rolex, which uses the label “perpetual” rather than automatic.

Automatic watches are super convenient as long as you wear them regularly.

Wearing one for 6 to 10 hours a day will give it enough energy to last through the night while it’s on your nightstand.

The watch draws on a winding reserve when you’re not wearing it. Once that reserve is gone, though, it’ll stop.

Don’t worry if you wake up and the watch has stopped. Automatic watches only need a jump start once they’ve died.

Most have a manual, hand-wind function that lets you wind the watch like a manual one.

If you have a watch without this function, you can still get it going again. By rotating or gently moving it in a side-to-side motion, it’ll start up.

If you have a few watches that you switch between, you might not wear your automatic enough to keep it powered.

In this case, you can use a watch winder.

These are small boxes that keep the watch moving and wound to be ready when you want to put it on.

Many also act as excellent display cases for your collection. Some can hold many watches and offer various rotation settings.

Winding and Setting a Watch: Detailed Instructions

Winding a watch is a simple process that takes very little time.

Whether you have a manual watch or you’re jump-starting an automatic one, the process is the same.

It’s essential, though, to not make mistakes that can damage your watch while doing it.

To prevent issues, follow these instructions when winding your mechanical watch.

Take Off Your Watch

I know it might seem like an obvious first step, but you never want to wind a watch while wearing it.

If you wind your watch while wearing it, you’ll be doing it at an angle that may damage its parts over time.

Though it might be inconvenient, in the long run, it will prevent an avoidable repair.

Turn the Crown

While holding the watch with its dial towards you, find the crown. The crown is the prominent knob on the side of the watch.

Make sure the crown is pushed in and not pulled out to the time-setting position.

Grab the crown between your index finger and thumb and turn it up and away from you. This will be turning it in a clockwise direction.

You’ll hear a soft ratcheting sound.

If the crown does not turn, you most likely have a screw-down crown. This is a water resistance feature.

To wind the watch, you’ll have to unscrew the crown until it pops into the neutral winding position.

Remember to screw the crown back in once you’ve wound the watch and set the time, so it remains watertight.

When winding the watch, you can turn the crown slowly or quickly; it doesn’t make a difference.

Wind the watch until you feel resistance or until it doesn’t wind anymore. A watch will need between 20 and 40 turns to be fully wound, depending on the model.

Don’t force the watch once you feel resistance or reach the point that it no longer winds. Forcing the crown can damage the watch.

Set the Time

Once you’ve wound the watch, you may need to set the time. To do so, pull the crown out to its furthest position.

Again, turn the crown up and away from you in a clockwise motion. This will turn the hands on the dial so you can set the correct time.

Always adjust the time forward, never backward, to avoid damage to the mechanics of your watch. When the time is set, push the crown back in.

Some watches also display the date. These watches tend to have another crown position for setting the date quickly. It will be between the winding and time setting positions.

It’s important not to set the date if the time displayed on the watch is between 9 pm and 2 am. You’ll risk damaging the gears that drive the calendar.

This timeframe will vary depending on the watchmaker. You should always consult the manual that came with your watch.

If the time on your watch is in the danger zone, pull the crown out and advance the hands forward until the date changes.

Continue moving it forward until the hour hand is past 2 am. Then you can push the crown to the date adjustment setting and change the date safely.

Maintaining your Mechanical Watch

A mechanical watch can last a lifetime if you take care of it.

Here are some maintenance tips that will ensure your watch keeps running for as long as you own it.

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Keep it Wound Up

A mechanical watch movement is like a small engine. Like your car’s engine, it relies on oils to keep everything lubricated and operating smoothly.

It’s recommended to wind up a mechanical watch every once in a while when you aren’t using it. This will keep the watch parts well oiled and functioning.

Operating a mechanical watch at least once a month will do the trick.

Treat it with Care

A mechanical watch has many small parts that work together to keep time.

Trauma to the watch can damage these small working parts.

You should always avoid activities like contact sports or construction work. Activities like these can potentially damage a mechanical watch.

You should also avoid extreme temperatures.

The lubricating oils in your watch are not made for extreme cold.

Avoid exposing your watch to really hot environments, too. Your car’s dashboard in the summer is an excellent example of where not to leave your watch.

Be Careful with Fluids and Steam

Water, cologne, perfume, and steam can all wreak havoc on your watch if you’re not careful.

Your watch might have a water resistance rating. Remember, though, that a water resistance of 30 meters means the watch is only splash-proof.

You should opt for a watch rated for 100 meters of water resistance or more if you want to swim with it.

You may also want to consider having its water-resistance tested annually. Over time, you may need to have the sealing gaskets replaced.

Also, always rinse your watch off with clean fresh water if it’s been in saltwater.

If your watch is not water-resistant, avoid liquids in general.

If you wear cologne or perfume, it is best to avoid spraying on the wrist your watch is on. It can seep through unsealed parts of the watch. It can also affect the metal of the casing and bracelet if you don’t clean it regularly.

Humidity and steam can also damage your watch. A telltale sign is foggy moisture on the inside of the crystal (the glass covering the dial).

Always avoid steam, too. Don’t wear your watch in the shower or a sauna. The heat affects the watertight seals and allows moisture in.

Finally, always store your watch in a dry place when you’re not wearing it

Magnets and Mechanical Watches

Strong magnets can magnetize a mechanical watch. Magnets in cell phones, speakers, and security scanners can affect them.

This usually makes the watch run faster than normal.

A way to check your watch for magnetism is to pass a compass over it. If the needle of the compass moves, your watch has been magnetized.

Don’t worry, though, because your watch isn’t permanently damaged.

You can easily have your watch demagnetized at a watch repair shop. You can also buy an inexpensive machine and do it yourself.

Clean Your Watch

You can keep your watch as good as new with regular cleaning.

A polishing kit is the best choice. It can maintain the shine of your watch and deal with minor scratches.

For basic cleaning, though, you can use household items.

If your watch is not water-resistant, try to wipe it off regularly with a clean, soft cloth.

If you have a water-resistant watch, you can use a toothbrush and a solution of warm water and mild soap.

Just dip the toothbrush in the solution and clean the casing and metal bracelet or rubber strap.

Also, rubber straps can deteriorate over time. Things like sunscreen and bug spray should be cleaned off when you get home to keep the strap in good shape.

Service Your Watch

Many new watch owners don’t realize that they need to service their mechanical watches.

Normal wear on the gears and the natural breakdown of the oil in the watch happen over time.

A professional watch repair shop will service the watch to fix any issues.

Generally, you should have a mechanical watch serviced every five to eight years. The cost of this service can be $100 or more, depending on the work they do.

This is something you should keep in mind when considering a mechanical watch.

Wrapping up

A mechanical watch is a testament to centuries of engineering. It’s a piece of art that you can be proud to wear on your wrist.

You also have the option to interact with your watch daily with a manual wind watch. If you’re forgetful, though, or just can’t be bothered, the automatic is a great way to go.

Either way, these watches can last a lifetime if you take good care of them. Follow the tips in this article, and your watch might even become an heirloom that your children can enjoy.

If you want to learn more about mechanical watch movements and how they compare to quartz movements, be sure to check out the article I wrote covering watch movements.