“It probably started on Reddit,” recalls Matthew Wright, an engineer from Brisbane, Australia. Online, he stumbled on a couple of posts from people who had made their own watches. He’d never even thought about doing something like that, but now he wanted to have a go too.
He started reading forums, researching tools and materials, and checking out where parts could be acquired, such as cases, dials, hands, strap and movement. “It becomes like a big jigsaw puzzle, you try to work out what pieces will fit together,” he says.
Before long, he had made his own watch to wear on his wedding day – a black dial in a stainless steel case, with tan strap. And then, he made four more in a similar style to give to his groomsmen.
“They still wear the watches on a regular basis – it’s quite a nice feeling when I see them wearing it,” he says.
Thanks in part to the availability of information over the web, many people just as curious as Wright have embarked on their own home-made watch projects. And some have even launched businesses as a result. But how easy is it to get started?
A quick hit on Google will bring up a wave of results that can kick things off for enthusiasts. There’s the Reddit Watch forum, the TimeZone Watch School, which offers courses via the web for a price, discussions on the WatchUSeek forum, and hundreds of YouTube videos aimed at makers.
People can buy kits for assembling watches or individual parts online with relative ease, too. This is the exact rabbit-hole that Wright fell down when he started researching.
“You see other people who’ve made little changes to watches, they’ve changed dials or whatever, and the next thing, I stumbled across websites where you can buy the cases completely empty,” he recalls.
People like Wright, who have a bit of experience with making their own bits of tech, will already have some of the necessary tools and know-how to get going, of course. One such person is Mike Hamende. By day, Hamende is a nuclear power plant operator in Illinois. By night, he makes things – from drones to robots to toys and his own circuit boards.
“My hobby is design and fabrication, and at the time a watch felt like a natural project to attempt,” he says, remembering how he embarked on making his first watch, with a glow-in-the-dark dial.
He’s since made two more with mechanical movements. Initially, he decided to take apart some watches in his own collection to try and learn how everything slotted together. Then, he found technical details about the movements online – importantly, these provided the detailed dimensions he needed to plan his design.
“Basically, those drawings tell you the size and shape of the cavity you need to have inside your watch case for the movement to fit properly,” he says.
The whole thing was modelled in computer software and then brought to life with the help of tools, like a ‘fly cutter’, that could mill and shape the materials he was using.
A hobby is one thing. But some take their watch-designing even further. In 2013, Jan Binnendijk, a maker in the Netherlands, found an old, broken watch once worn by his father. In the process of taking it apart and fixing it, he fashioned his own parts – including a case, dial and hands. By the time he’d finished, much of the device was brand new.
Later, he published photos of his project on a Dutch watch forum. “That drew the attention of a guy who was starting his own watch company. He needed a supplier of cases,” recalls Binnendijk.
A team of five people eventually came together to make 52 watches with pre-made movements. They sold them for 500 euros ($615) each, which Binnendijk says covered the cost of materials.
The team eventually came together to make 52 watches and sold them for 500 euros ($615) each
Binnendijk specialises in machining the cases and has largely worked with titanium, a particularly strong metal, for this purpose. He went on to found his own watch company, DumeT. The timepieces he’s making now will sell for 1,990 euros ($2500). He’s hoping in the future to make his own movement as well, which could mean he’s able to craft an entire mechanical watch from scratch in his workshop.
With this in mind, he recently bought a book on watchmaking by legendary English watchmaker George Daniels. “I don’t believe in God, I believe in George Daniels,” jokes Binnendijk.
But he still has fond memories of that first batch of 52 watches he made with his friends and contacts. He recalls that one customer had flown to the Netherlands from Singapore on business. Presumably excited to buy a limited edition watch made by enthusiasts, the businessman asked to meet the team in person. They converged at Amsterdam’s Hilton Hotel to hand over the watch.
“Can you imagine, just guys in an old beat-up BMW going to the Hilton,” recalls Binnendijk.
“We were on the roof terrace, we were all smoking cigars, drinking beer, having lots of fun.”
Not bad for a bit of DIY.
By Chris Baraniuk