Pocketwatch 101 – Learn about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches

How to Set Your Vintage Pocket Watch

As a rule, vintage pocket watches are either key-set, pendant-set (stem-set), lever-set or pin-set. The easiest way to tell which one you have is to look for the setting lever. If your watch is lever-set, there will be a setting-lever visible somewhere around the dial of the watch, though you usually have to remove the bezel and crystal to see it. Just because your case has a notch cut for a lever, doesn't mean that you have a lever-set watch, as many cases could accommodate either a lever-set or pendant-set movement. Look for the actual tip of the setting lever, which should be visible poking out at the edge of the dial. If your watch has a little button or raised bump somewhere near the winding stem, then it's likely a European-made pin-set watch.

Key-Set Pocket Watch

As the name suggests, a key-set pocket watch is set with a key. Some watches use the same key to set and wind the watch; others have different keys for setting and winding. If your watch has two keys, then it's important to determine which key best fits each winding arbor. Using a key that is too big will soon round off the square corners of the winding arbor and then you'll have a much bigger repair problem. If you don't have keys for your watch, a watchmaker who specializes in vintage repairs can probably supply one for you. We have full sets of winding keys available on our Watch Accessories page. We also stock single keys in select sizes.

Setting a watch with a key is accomplished by turning the arbor that carries the hands. Never attempt to set the watch by moving the hands directly... you'll just break the hand. If your center arbor is square in shape, then you have a key-set watch.s When setting, keep the key perpendicular to the dial and make sure you don't disturb the horizontal alignment of the hands. The minute hand and hour hand must remain perfectly flat and parallel after you're finished setting the watch.

There's a reason why watches evolved from key-setting to pendant-setting: a pendant-set watch was a lot easier and more convenient for the typical user. Key-set watches can be inconvenient and sometimes challenging. Often setting a key-set watch requires removing or opening the bezel to access the hands and setting arbor. It is certainly easier for the novice to damage the bezel, crystal, hands or dial with a key-set watch than with a pendant set. As such, we usually don't recommend key-wind key-set watches for daily use.

Some key-set watches have the setting square for the hands accessible through a hole in the case-back. If there are 2 holes in your inner case-back, then the center hole is for setting the watch, and the outer hole is for winding.


Illustration of setting a Waltham P. S. Bartlett key-set watch in coin-silver case

Illustration of setting a Waltham P. S. Bartlett key-set watch in coin-silver case. Note that on this watch, the setting square is accessed from the front of the watch. Some key-set watches are accessed from the back.


Pendant-Set Pocket Watch

The part of the watch case that holds the winding crown and stem is called the pendant. The winding crown (or winding knob) is attached to one end of the winding stem and the other end of the stem engages with the winding mechanism in the watch movement. When the crown is pushed "in" i.e. toward the watch movement, then the watch is in winding position and turning the crown will wind the mainspring. When the crown is pulled "out" i.e. away from the watch movement, the the watch is in setting position and turning the crown will engage the setting mechanism of the watch.

Illustration of setting a Hamilton pendant-set pocket watch

Illustration of setting a Hamilton pendant-set pocket watch

Common Problems with Pendant-Set Watches

If your pendant-set watch won't "hold" in either the winding or setting position i.e. if it won't "click" from one position to the other, then you likely have a broken sleeve. The sleeve is a small part which mounts inside the pendant of the watch and grips the stem with 4 small spring "fingers". If these small spring fingers become bent or broken, then they will no longer hold the stem in the correct position. The only solution is to replace the broken sleeve.

If the watch clicks smoothly between winding and setting positions, but you still can't set the watch, then you either have a lever-set watch (see below) or there is an internal problem with the winding/setting mechanism. Often, old dried up grease can freeze the winding/setting mechanism and it takes a thorough cleaning and re-lubrication to get everything moving again.

Lever-Set Pocket Watch

Lever-setting was a "feature" of many higher-grade pocket watches which prevented them from being accidentally set to the incorrect time. Lever-setting was a requirement for Railroad Timekeeping Service. We've provided photo instructions for how to set your lever-set watch here.

Illustration of a lever-set watch with setting lever pulled out

Illustration of a lever-set watch with setting lever pulled out

Common Problems with Lever-Set Watches

Lever-setting mechanisms tend to be quite reliable, as they do not rely on the proper functioning of a stem and sleeve. Pulling out the setting lever usually shifts the winding mechanism so that it engages with the cannon-pinion and hands of the watch to allow setting. Retracting the setting lever allows the winding mechanism to rock back to its "normal" position in which it is engaged with the mainspring barrel. If pulling the set-lever on your watch doesn't put it in setting mode, or if there is any significant resistance to pulling the lever out, then there's something wrong internally that would require professional service.

Pin-Set Pocket Watch

Pin-Setting (or nail-setting, as it is sometimes called) is another setting mechanism that is rarely seen on American watches, but occurs more commonly on European timepieces. On a pin-set watch, there is a little button, usually near the winding stem. You must press and hold this button while turning the crown to set the watch. Pin-setting isn't very common on higher-grade watches.

Illustration of a pin-set or nail-set pocket watch

Illustration of a pin-set or nail-set pocket watch