Restoring and Replating a Watch Case
How many of us collectors of vintage watches own pieces that don’t get worn, or never go in our display cases because they look beaten up? Well believe it or not, it isn’t very hard to restore a watch case to an excellent useable condition, or even make it look brand new again!
I recently had an opportunity to buy a watch I had been searching some time for, and since it was a relatively scarce item, I had decided to take whatever came along and restore it as necessary. The watch is a Tissot “Sytal” or “Astrolon”, a mechanical watch made mostly of plastic, built by Tissot in the early 1970’s. This watch is considered by many to be the true predecessor of the Swatch. Click Here to find out more about the remarkable movement in this watch. I was fortunate to acquire one with a chrome-plated brass case, which meant I could do something to improve it. Many of these watches were cased in plastic, which have much more limited restoration options.
Restoring (or refinishing, really) a watch case is not as difficult as may be thought, providing major reconstruction is not necessary of course. If the case has broken or bent lugs, big holes or deep scratches that are beyond sanding out, a trip to a jeweler who can do repairs with hard solder is going to be necessary.
You will need to find a “user friendly” plating shop, one which is willing to take on small jobs, and more importantly, work to your instructions. Plating shops usually deal with large items such as plumbing fittings and car parts, so they need to understand that your watch is to go nowhere near their 5 horsepower buffing machine! One touch on that, and your watch will only be half the size it was before!
The materials required are very simple, and are listed here:
Before we go any further, we have to make a couple of simple sanding and polishing tools, which will take you no more than 5 minutes to do. This is where the strips, tape and wet & dry paper come into it.
Lets get on with it!
Refinishing a case is a 4 step process, I’ll take you through them one by one:Step 1:
The original plating has to be removed, and this is done by the plating shop. The plating must be stripped in 2 stages. Most plating, whether chrome, gold or silver, is plated onto a layer of nickel. Firstly, the top plating is removed by “reverse electroplating”. The nickel layer is then removed in a cold nickel stripping bath. It is most important not to “plate off” the nickel, as etching of the case will occur, possibly ruining the case. If your shop can’t do cold nickel strip, you must find another one which can.
Other case materials/platings and finishes
Although the above example refers to a chrome-plated watch, the process is exactly the same if you plan on re-plating the watch in gold, silver, rhodium or whatever you like. Just substitute the word “chrome” for the metal of your choice. Many plating shops do hard or soft gold, silver and rhodium as well as chrome, as these metals are often used on trophies etc.Satin Finishes
To get a satin finish, prepare the watch case with a high polish as described before. Then specify to the plating shop to do satin nickel plate, instead of the normal bright nickel which forms the base layer of the other plated finishes. This is a different plating bath to normal bright nickel, and has chemicals added (or subtracted) to the bath which gives a fine satin finish to the nickel chemically. Then, when the top plating is applied, it will also be satin.Brushed Finish
You have probably guessed by now that the finished plating quality is only as good as the surface preparation. So, if you want some part of your watch case to have a brushed finish, then this needs to be applied before any plating is done. Prepare and polish all the areas of the watch, including those that you want the brushed finish on. Then, using masking tape, mask off the areas you want to remain polished, then apply the brushed finish. Scotchbrite pads work best for this, but you may want to try different grades of wet and dry paper to achieve the result you want. Experiment on a piece of scrap brass. After brushing, remove the masking tape and clean the case with spirit to remove any adhesive residue. Then very lightly polish the case again with a cloth and metal polish, including the brushed area. Wash the case with warm soapy water to remove polish residues, as before. The final plating will look exactly as the finish you have prepared.Stainless Steel or Silveroid watch cases
Although you probably won’t even try to plate a case made of these materials (well I hope you don’t, because it won’t work too well!) you can repair damage to one of these in exactly the same way as preparing a brass watch case for re-plating, only the polishing operations will take a little longer.
Images copyright © 2000 by Paul Delury (Gumby) using a Sony Mavica
August 18th 2000, Perth, Western Australia.