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How to polish a watch case

I have always been wondering how old watchmakers are able to polish the case of a watch such that it looks almost like new. There are companies such as replateit.com who are specialized in galvanizing old watch cases but often that is not even necessary. Just buffing the case will bring back it's old beauty again.

What you need

The procedure is very simple and you don't need any special machines. A magic eraser sponge, a few cloth and the right metal polishing paste is all you need. Metal polishing pastes contain abrasives (often diamond dust) the size of a few microns. Those tiny abrasives mixed with a protecting wax take away any oxidation and tiny grooves on the surfaces resulting in an extremely even surface. This is what makes the metal shine.

Autosol metal polish.

I recommend to use autosol metal polish. You can find it in stores that carry products for washing, waxing and polishing cars. To clean a watch you will only need a tiny amount.

The basic idea

Metal polishing paste removes a little bit of metal from the surface thus you should avoid to use it on gold plated surfaces. That is: you should use it on a gold plated watch but only on the spots where the gold plating is already damaged. The base metal (e.g brass or copper) matches usually the tone and color of the gold plating. Thus if you clean the areas where the gold plating is still good and you polish the oxidized base metal in the areas where the gold plating is worn out then you can make it shine again. Here is an example of a gold pated Bulova watch case. The gold plating is partially damaged and even the gold plated areas look dull because tiny cracks in the gold plating allow oxidation from the brass in back to come to the surface.

An old bulova watch case prior to cleaning and polishing

An old bulova watch case after cleaning and polishing

The procedure: How to polish an old watch

  1. Take a "magic eraser sponge" (melamine foam sponge) make it a bit wet and clean the entire watch case (rub hard). This will remove most of the dirt and oxidation and make the areas shine where the surface level gold plating is still good.

  2. Rub the watch dry with a towel

  3. Apply a tiny amount of "autosol metal polish" to and old but clean piece of cloth. Buff the areas where the gold plating is damaged. The cloth will become black. There is no rotating buffing wheel required. Just the cloth and your hand going over the surface a few times will do the trick.

  4. Take a clean white cloth and remove the black metal particles that remained after the polishing.

  5. The watch looks now clean and shiny but there are still some micro abrasives on the surface. Take a new cloth and a bit of mineral oil (e.g baby oil) and polish the watch. You will notice that the cloth becomes still slightly gray as tiny metal particles and dirty micro abrasives stick to the oil.

  6. Take now a soft microfiber cloth and buff the entire watch

Practice with a coin

I suggest to practice with a copper brass or nickel coin before you go to your precious watch.

Testing autosol metal polish on a coin. A coin before and after polishing.


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