Automatic Watch Maintenance 101: What to Do and How

Doing maintenance on an automatic watch is very important for the longevity of the watch. While maintenance is something that you seek professional help to do, different things can be done to maintain the watch at home. Maintaining the watch from home also helps you save some money in the long run.

Automatic watches must be sent to maintenance every 3-5 years. It’s possible to perform several maintenance jobs from home using household items. It’s possible to polish the case, polish the bracelet, conditioning leather straps, polish the crystal, and clean the automatic watch.

Maintaining your automatic watch is just as important as maintaining your car. If you want the car (and watch) to last long, you will have to give it the proper maintenance and care. Sadly, you are forced to take your car to the mechanic to ensure the maintenance is done correctly. In the same fashion, you have to take your watch to the watchmaker to ensure the maintenance is done correctly.

However, there are many things you can do yourself to maintain the watch. Some aspects of the maintenance require a bit of knowledge and professional tools. In contrast, some of the maintenance work is very simple and can be done with household items.

Automatic Watch Maintenance

Automatic watches are not very maintenance-heavy objects. However, you must care just a little bit for your watch if you want it to last for a good while.

There are many components that interplay with each other in an automatic watch. Therefore, maintenance is a requirement.

There is no getting around going to professional watchmakers to get the automatic watches serviced every now and again. All automatic watches will need an overhaul service every 3-10 years, depending on the manufacturer.

Despite needing professional care, automatic watches and watches, in general, can have a lot of maintenance done at home for very little expense. While something like polishing the watch case sounds like a tedious and challenging process, it’s actually much simpler than one might think.


The most important for any mechanical machine is lubrication. Whether it being production equipment, engines, or watches. All have mechanical parts that is under constant stress. One of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce stress and preserve the system’s longevity is to use lubrication.

While this might be a very self-explanatory statement, all you have to do is to wear the watch, or occasionally wind it. Since it’s dangerous to your watch to conduct a relubrication by yourself, the best “maintenance” lubrication wise is to wear or wind the watch to make sure the lubrication is flowing.

Ensure the automatic watch is wound, so the lubrication will spread throughout the movement of the watch. The lubrication will only spread when the watch is running. If the watch is stored for a longer period, make sure to wind the watch every month.

The only real maintenance you can do is to make sure the watch is wound often. You can’t relubricate the watch by yourself like you can’t take all parts out of an engine and relubricate them unless you are trained.

Therefore, your best cause of action is to wind the watch and make it run for a good while to have the lubrication flow. There are guides on which areas of an automatic watch should be lubricated, including the types of lubricants. However, it’s a very dangerous process to do when you are not trained in the craft.

Therefore, you should never try to lubricate your own watches, unless you are comfortable that the watches may never work again (unless your watchmaker can identify the damage caused).

Polishing of Watch Case

A very underrated maintenance job that you can do yourself relatively cheaply. The problematic aspect comes if the watch case has some polished and some brushed areas.

Polishing a watch case is fairly simple when the watch case is all polished. However, if the case has both polished and brushed areas, the process can be tricky. Using a metal polish such as the cape cod and just moving the cloth back and forth until the scratches is gone will result in an excellent looking finish.

Before ripping out the metal polish and starts polishing everything, you should look at the case to identify areas that are not a mirror polish. You will most likely not want to make a mirror polish on a surface that is brushed or polished in any other way.

In most cases, you don’t want to polish the brushed areas, as it’s difficult to replicate the manufacturer’s methods. Although the mirror polishing the watch yourself doesn’t use the same methods as the manufacturers, the result is harder to tell apart. Polishing the watch “wrong” can decrease its value.

The things you need to polish your watch is as follows:

  • Cape cod (or equivalent polishing for metals)
  • Dry cloth
  • Masking tape (normal household tape will work)
  • Scissors

Polishing the watch is as said quite easy. All you have to do is to wipe the entire watch case with a dry cloth. It’s best to replace the bracelet/strap before starting the polish. However, if you don’t have the tools, it’s not a must.

After the watch has been wiped clean, you need some masking tape to mask off all the areas which is not going to be polished. In the picture below, you see some white and blue arrows. The blue arrows point towards the areas you want to polish with the cope cad (or equivalent metal polish). Simultaneously, the white arrows point towards the areas that are brushed and not wanted to be polished.

Different polish on the watch
Different polish on the watch

When the areas have been masked off with tape, you are ready to crack open your metal polishing equipment. Using the cape cod cloth, you simply wipe back and forth until the areas have reached the wanted level of mirror polish.

Polishing of Crystal

While most modern automatic watches are featured with a sapphire crystal, there are vintage watches and some modern watches with acrylic and mineral crystal. Before getting too deep in the details, it can be worth getting a crystal replacement rather than polishing it if the crystal is made of sapphire.

Many popular brands such as Daniel Wellington has a mineral crystal. Both acrylic and mineral crystals can be relatively easily scratched, whereas sapphire is difficult to scratch. The difficulty lies in the crystal’s hardness—the harder the crystal, the more elbow grease you need.

MaterialMohs scale of hardness
Mineral glass5
Mohs scale of hardness on popular watch crystals

The things you should have available is:

The first step of polishing the crystal is to cover the bezel with tape. The second step is to apply the crystal polishing compound. The third step is to rub the compound in a circular motion for 2-5 minutes. The process is repeated until the scratches is gone, or the result is satisfactory. When the result has reached your satisfaction, you should wipe the crystal with a wet cloth to remove any leftover compound.

Ensuring Water Resistance

Ensuring the water resistance is very important to all watches that is used near water. Even watches used every day and exposed to rain will need to have the water-resistance in place. While most watches don’t really need any water resistance since the water use is minimal by most watch wearers.

Unless you are a watchmaker, you will most likely not perform a water-resistance check on your own. However, taking the watch to a watch shop can ensure water resistance. A water resistance check costs between $50-$100.

The water resistance is important to maintain as water and moisture must in no circumstances enter the watch. And although you can’t replace gaskets and apply lubrication in areas where water can enter the case, some things can be done to prevent deteriorating the gaskets and removing the lubrication.

To prevent gaskets from deteriorating and lubrication to be removed there are things to avoid and things to do:

  • Keep the watch away from dissolvents (e.g., when cleaning)
  • Keep the watch away from soap (e.g., washing hands and baths)
  • Get the watch to a watch shop once a year to maintain water resistance

A rule of thumb says you should remove the watch from your wrist whenever you are taking a bath, cleaning, or generally is around dissolvents. Although I take showers with my 300-meter water-resistant Omega Seamaster, soaps and dissolvents will overtime deteriorate the gaskets and remove the lubrication. This is also why the manufacturers and service centers recommend a yearly water-resistance check, which I have chosen to accept.

Maintaining a Bracelet or Leather strap

While getting a new bracelet and leather strap is easy while the watch is in for maintenance anyway, some brands know what to charge for their straps (if you know what I’m saying). In essence, buying new straps is very expensive compared to the cost of just maintaining them properly.

Generally, you should take off your watch when being active and sleeping to limit the tear of the bracelet and strap. Sweat will increase the rate at which the leather will deteriorate. Being active will put stress on the pins, which holds together the metal bracelet, which will change the bracelet’s form over time.

While being active is important, it’s not always super healthy for your watch’s bracelet. The bars between the joints in the bracelet will start to sway, which will change the fit of the bracelet.

Furthermore, sweat is a killer of both leather and metal. Sadly, I had to experience this on one of my own watches. In the pictures below is a watch with a leather strap that has a stainless steel deployment clasp.

Rust on deployment clasp
Rust on deployment clasp
Cracked leather strap
Cracked leather strap

When moisture (rain, sweat, bathing, swimming, etc.) and oxygen get in contact with metal, the chemical process of oxidation occurs. In the pushers to open my deployment clasp, has come to a tiny rust spot. Although it’s easy to fix (if you know how to disassemble the deployment clasp), it would be a lot cooler just to avoid the rust altogether. Fun fact: Even stainless steel can rust if chromium concentration is too low (source).

The leather which has cracked (the right picture) has not been appropriately maintained. Although I have given the leather some leather balm, I haven’t given the leather any leather conditioner/oil, making the leather flexible. I only managed to have the leather shine using some leather balm. Still, I didn’t manage to used a leather conditioner to maintain the flexibility of the leather.

Maintaining a Leather Strap

Maintaining leather is not really complicated. All you need is to have some dry pieces of cloth and different leather products. The leather products you need is to clean the leather and condition it to preserve the shine and its flexibility.

You should not use soaps or other dissolvents to clean the leather, only products meant to clean leather. Traditional soaps and dissolvents will dry out the leather. Rather than just cleaning the leather, it will enforce the deteriorating process.

You will need the following when maintaining leather:

  • Dry cloths
  • Leather oil/conditioner
  • Leather balm
  • Leather cleaner

The process of conditioning your leather strap is a 3 step process.

Step 1: Take a dry cloth and apply the leather cleaner. Rub the cloth in circular motions on the whole leather strap. Once the entire strap has been applied with cleaner (both frontside and backside), let the strap sit for some time (30 minutes is a good rule of thumb).

Step 2: Take a new dry piece of cloth and apply some leather oil/conditioner. Rub the cloth in a circular motion against the strap. Rub on both the frontside and backside of the leather strap. Once the entire strap has gotten oil/conditioner applied, let the strap rest for some time (again, 30 minutes is a good rule of thumb).

Step 3: To ensure excellent water resistance and that the leather can resist some grease and grime, the leather balm must be applied. The leather balm is used in the same manner as in the two previous steps. Taking a dry cloth and applying the leather balm to the cloth, rubbing the cloth in circular motions on the leather. Let the leather strap rest for about 30 minutes again.

Always remember that using too much of the oil/conditioner and balm will make the leather sticky instead of smooth and flexible.

Maintaining Metal Bracelet

It can be worth just to take the bracelet in for a professional polish if the angles are tricky. For higher-end watches such as Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Breguet, etc. you want to take the bracelet or leather strap to the watchmaker to ensure everything is done according to the manufacturers’ standards. If the maintenance is done incorrectly, it might reduce the value of the bracelet or leather strap. Although it’s possible to purchase a new bracelet or strap, most watches are worth more with its original accessories.

You need some items to perform a polish and maintenance of a metal bracelet:

  • Cape cod (or equivalent polishing for metals)
  • Dry cloth
  • Masking tape (normal household tape will work)
  • Scissors

When polishing a metal bracelet, the process is the same as polishing the case of the watch. You want to tape any areas with a brushed finish before starting the polish. Next, you will take your cape cod (or equivalent metal polish) and use back and forth motions until the surface has a mirror polish. It’s really that simple.

Cleaning of Automatic Watches

Cleaning of an automatic watch is very important. The dirt and grease that sits around in the corners and creeks of the watch will get nasty. The shiny watch you once had would start to look like a watch you found in a lake if you didn’t clean it occasionally.

If the automatic watch has a water resistance above 50 meters, it’s possible to use a wet electric toothbrush or ordinary toothbrush. However, if the watch doesn’t have below 50 meters of water resistance, it should be cleaned only with a dry cloth.

Water-resistance is an important consideration when cleaning a watch. You don’t ever want to expose a watch without water-resistance to any water. And although many watches say they are water-resistant, or water-resistant to 50 meters, they are not isolated enough to have a toothbrush scaping in the openings (e.g., the crown, chronograph pushers, moon phase pushers, etc.).

Whenever you are about to clean a watch, make sure the crown is secured correctly. If the watch is equipped with pushers, make sure not to push them during the cleaning.

Automatic watches are delicate machines on the inside and (mostly) tanks on the outside. It’s therefore very important that water doesn’t enter the automatic watch to avoid rust.

All you need to clean an automatic watch is:

  • Mild soap
  • Dry cloth
  • Wet cloth
  • Toothbrush (an electric toothbrush will work as well)

If moisture or water enters the watch, you want to find a watchmaker within a few days. Failing to have the watch serviced after a “moisture attack” can cause the watch to cease up and eventually be beyond repair.

Cleaning of Automatic Watches WITH Water Resistance

Cleaning an automatic watch with water resistance is much simpler and gets the watch a lot cleaner. While you should not use any dissolvents on an automatic watch, water-resistant watches are more forgiving for “rough” handling.

Cleaning a water-resistant watch with a toothbrush is a good way to reach all the watch’s difficult spots. Adding a little mild soap will help to get rid of grime and grease that have built up. However, soap shouldn’t be used often.

When scrubbing the watch with a toothbrush, make sure to apply gentle pressure. Don’t put a lot of force into the brushing as a poor quality watch might be penetrated by the toothbrush if to much force is applied.

Cleaning of Automatic Watches WITHOUT Water Resistance

Cleaning an automatic watch without water resistance can make the cleaning a bit more difficult. First of all, not using a wet cloth and mild soap will make you feel that the watch is not actually clean. Secondly, if the watch is a lower-end watch, there is a slight risk that the moisture from a potentially wet cloth could enter the watch.

Using a dry cloth, wipe down the watch regularly to avoid a buildup of grease. In case there is a buildup of grease and gunk, use a slightly wet cloth. When using the slight dry cloth, don’t apply pressure as it could force moisture from the cloth to the watch.

You should always strive to use a dry cloth since the protection of the watch is your number one priority. You should only use a slightly wet cloth if your watch is filthy.

Be Mindful of Magnetism

Magnetism is a killer of automatic watches. The mainspring (which is also referred to as the balance spring, or the spring attached to the balance wheel) is what makes the automatic watch as accurate as it possibly can. However, if the mainspring is magnetized, the mainspring will start to be magnetized to itself and the watch case.

An automatic watch is designed to have a frequency in the range of 2-10 vibration per second. However, if the watch gets magnetized, the mainspring will no longer maintain the designed rate, and the accuracy will decrease drastically.

When wearing an automatic watch, avoid MIR scanners, large industrial constructions, electric motors, fridge magnets, and other everyday objects that can be a part of transportation or work.

If you watch is every magnetized, it’s possible to demagnetize the watch with a “Watch Demagnetizer” (link to Amazon).

Detecting magnetism and demagnetizing the watch is very simple. If you have a compass, simply place your watch on top of the compass. If the compass starts to move more than normal, your watch is magnetized. Then place the watch on top of the demagnetizer. Once the demagnetizer is active, simply lift the watch in a straight vertical line. Place the watch on the compass again to see if the watch has been demagnetized. Repeat the process until satisfied.

Professional Overhaul Service

The professional overhaul service is a fixed service interval at which the automatic watch needs to be sent to maintenance. An overhaul service is what many also would refer to as a complete service.

An overhaul service at a professional watchmaker is a service where the automatic watch is fully disassembled, cleaned, worn components replaced, water-resistance regained, relubrication of all components, dial and hands are replaced, and everything is polished. The overhaul service will make the watch appear brand new.

The overhaul service consists of a rather extensive process. However, to keep it simple and surrounding the main points, I will explain the 4 primary steps in the service: disassembly, cleaning components, lubrication, and water resistance.


The disassembly of an automatic watch goes like any other watch. When a complete service is performed, everything is split apart. Each component will be separated from each other. A standard automatic watch has somewhere around 150-250 parts but can have well above 1,000 components.

Each component is manually disassembled from the watch. While the watch is being disassembled, all the components are checked for general wear and tear in case some parts need replacement before going on with the process (no need to service worn components).

When all the components have been separated, the watchmaker is ready to proceed to the next step.

Cleaning components

The watch is completely dismantled at this point. All the components have been removed from the main plate of the movement, and the watch is now ready to be cleaned. Before the cleaning process can begin, the components are placed in a tray. The tray is divided into smaller baskets. Each basket contains components of a different size.

The components are cleaned using different types of technology, such as ultrasonic cleaning. The cleaning also involves cleaning with water and solvents.

Once the components have been cleaned, they are ready for the reassembly of the watch.


After the watch has been cleaned, the components are ready to be lubricated. The lubrication is essential to maintain the quality and longevity of the watch. All automatic watches are lubricated, and the lubrication happens when the components are clean.

When the lubrication is applied and done correctly, the components will theoretically never touch each other. Since the lubrication will function as a very thin layer of film on the components, the metal will never actually touch metal. This is also the reason lubrication is one of the most essential aspects of watch maintenance.

Water resistance

For automatic watches with water resistance, it’s crucial for the condition of the watch to maintain the water resistance. In essence, the water resistance is to ensure that the water can’t penetrate the watch, as the water would more or less instantly corrode the components.

The components and parts of the internals of the watch is made of metals that can corrode. In contrast, the externals are typically made of stainless steel, plastics, or titanium, which can’t or is more difficult to corrode.

Jonas Henriksen

AllInWatches is founded by Jonas, who has a great interest in mechanical watches. All aspects of manual and automatic (mechanical) watches is a big interest and have been a passion since 2015, where the first automatic watch was purchased. Seeing the transparent case back and discovering the heritage of watchmaking piqued an interest in horology.

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