Having been intrigued by the wooden dials used in some Hamilton watches, I have had a hankering to attempt to make one myself. I decided to use a 12 size Elgin pocket watch as my guinea pig, both as it would probably be easier to work on something a little bigger than the normal wristwatch dial, and also because it may showcase the wood better.
I located a woodworking/craft shop that sold natural wood veneers, and chose a lightish English Oak with interesting grain and vein pattern. Many veneers have interesting grains, or burl patterns, but you need to remember that only a small section will be used in making the dial, and the pattern needs to be small enough to be evident within such a small area. Below you can see the veneer, with the 1918 17j Elgin with its original metal dial, in a NOS Defiance base-metal case.
A problem with this “natural” veneer, as opposed to the pre-glued variety, is that it is not perfectly flat. In fact it is far from flat. However, the pre-glued variety has both a cloth backing, and the glue, making it too thick to use for a dial. My plan was to use two layers to allow for a sunken sub-seconds dial. The original metal dial measured 0.95mm thick, and two layers of the natural veneer measured in at just a tad over 1.00mm, so it was pretty close, and would only need a touch of sanding to thin it down to the correct thickness.
Now the process starts. Choosing an area of veneer with attractive graining, and orienting it to run horizontally across the dial, a rough square was cut from the sheet of veneer, larger than that required for the dial. A second square was cut to form the lower, or sub-seconds layer. I had initially intended to stain the lower veneer layer a darker colour, so that the sub-seconds dial would contrast with the main dial. However, once varnish is applied the veneer darkens considerably, and considering I was using dark blued hands, the sub-second hand could well become almost invisible against a darker sub-dial. I settled for running the grain 90 degrees to the main dial to effect a difference.
A punch & die set was then used to create the hole in the upper layer for the sub-seconds dial. This punched quite cleanly through the veneer. The hole was positioned carefully to ensure the area of darkest grain would run through the middle of the finished dial.
Here are the two pieces of veneer positioned ready for gluing. At this stage the rest of the dial has not yet been marked out. As I mentioned previously, this natural veneer was far from flat, and so I glued and pressed the two pieces for a couple of days under a set of encyclopedias (who said they wouldn’t come in handy!)
With the veneers bonded for all eternity, the holes for the hands could be drilled, and the dial marked out ready for cutting. A vernier caliper was used to ensure the distance between the hands was correct to fit the movement, and the original metal dial was used as a template to draw the circumference.
The dial was rough-cut out of the sheet using a very sharp hobby knife, leaving a generous amount of distance from the marked dial, just in case the veneer decided to splinter. It is very fragile material, but in this laminated state it became a bit more resilient and did not fracture. The excess wood was then sanded away (rather tediously) using fine sandpaper, until the marked line disappeared.
As I sanded I trial-fitted the wooden dial into a spare Elgin 12 size parts movement, until it fitted freely. Everything fitted nicely, as you can see in the pic below. At this stage I also sanded both front and back a touch to ensure that the dial was of the correct thickness.
Now, the part where I went somewhat astray. The English oak has quite deep grain, which I wanted to fill as I intended to use Letraset rub-down numerals on the dial. These would not take kindly to being applied over rough grain. I applied multiple coats of clear gloss varnish, rubbing back between each coat, in order to fill the grain. In hindsight I would use another method, such as the purpose designed grain-fillers available. The many coats of varnish tended to round-out the sharpness of the sub-second dial cutout, and the gloss finish is not the best for a dial. I would probably choose a simple semi-matt or matt oil finish instead. Below is the dial as finished, about to be properly fitted into the movement.
I tried three times to apply Letraset numerals, using both white and black versions of the same font to achieve a shadowed effect. I was not at all happy with the look, feeling the font used was just not right for a watch dial. It was also very difficult to get the numerals all positioned exactly right, and any small deviation is instantly noticeable to the eye. Fortunately, the Letraset scraped off fairly easily. In the end I cut my losses and applied a simple black crosshair to the dial. A different font, or perhaps some of the gold coloured Letraset numerals I have seen, would be a better choice than the numbers I used.
The dial is held to the movement with double-sided sticky-tape, not elegant, but certainly sufficient for a short term experimental dial. The watch was reassembled, the hands replaced and clearances checked, and all was well. Here is the final product.
I am not overly happy with the way this dial turned out , but I did learn how to do a better job in future. It was an interesting experiment, and makes for an unique looking timepiece.
Thanks to Rob B for his help, and use of tools, on this project. If you would like to have a look at Rob’s article on D.I.Y Watch Dials, click HERE.