1941 Bulova Chronograph (Caliber 13AH)

Bulova 13AH Feature

Buying Pre-50s chronographs in non-working condition and expecting to get them running again is usually like trying to find true love through Tinder, but every once in a while you find a piece that entirely renews your faith in these vintage chronographs (and one’s ability to fix them.) This Bulova Chronograph from 1941 reminded me about what is so mesmerizing, elegant, and beautiful about chronos of this era.

(A side note here: I strongly urge people against buying non-working vintage chronographs online. If it’s not working, run away unless it is a piece you are strongly attached to. More than likely, the cost of service, if possible, will be close to double whatever price you end up paying.)

I bought this great piece off of a forum with what was supposed to be just a mainspring issue. What I found was so much worse. Ironically the mainspring was fine (but I replaced it anyway.) The real problem was the winding pinion and all the pieces it left behind. When I removed it the wheel only had one tooth left (as I imagine some other things of this age….) Unfortunately this made it impossible to wind the watch and also meant that there were 11 broken teeth that were at one point floating around in this piece. Luckily these did not cause too much of an issue.

Winding Pinion

I decided to take the usual shot in the dark that these chronographs are and set about disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, oiling, and praying it will work when it all comes back together.

When working on chronographs, unless you are very used to them and have a crazy good understanding of the mechanics and all the little quirks of each different caliber, technical guides are your best friends. Vintage chronographs have the equivalent of a bible that comes in 28 volumes and is called the Esembl-o-Graf series. This series has just about every base caliber and detailed instructions on its takedown, assembly, and oiling procedures. This chronograph was a Valjoux 23 base so that’s where I went. There are digital versions available, but I am a sucker for vintage books and was able to pick up a full set for my horological library. With a book as my guide I got the whole thing back together and shockingly, it worked! There was however one thing still wrong that I only noticed during disassembly and inspection, the minute jumper spring was bent. This was incredibly annoying as not only is this part impossible to replace, but it is unreasonably delicate as it needs to allow a gear to gently pass without stopping the whole train, and yet needs to have enough tension to give the wheel its “jumping” effect. I very carefully bent the spring back to its proper alignment and other than the mysterious spot of rust on the chronograph bridge the movement came out magnificently well. It sparkles for a piece that is more than 70 years old.

Bulova 13AH Movement 2 Bulova 13AH Movement 1

Once I got the dial and hands on and went to case it up I noticed an external problem. The bezel would not sit properly on the case middle. Nothing like one more obstacle with a watch just as you think you are going to be finished with it. Unfortunately I could not remedy this problem myself and had to send this case to some experts. On a recommendation I contacted ABC Watchwerks.

In an industry famed for intimidating and rude service, I was very pleasantly surprised by the friendliness, speed, and quality of work that they produced out of their shop in LA. They also did some amazing work on another piece coming to the blog soon.

With the case functioning perfectly I was finally able to finish this piece and appreciate its full beauty. There is a certain elegance and class that these vintage chronographs have that was lost with time. The crisp numbering and the contrast of the blue and black lend a legibility and simplicity that is unmatched in most modern chronographs. Even the sub-dial numbering is easily legible. It is no more than what it is intended to be and shows no useless design fluff. It is a perfect piece as a dress watch with a little more than just the time to make it pop. While it does show some signs of mistreatment in the past, it has aged far more gracefully than many other 73 year old things (or people.) Back together it is in my opinion one of the best chronographs I have worked on to date, but I have a feeling that it will inspire me to buy a few more chronographs that will not end as well as this one did. Only time will tell.

Bulova 13AH Side Bulova 13AH Crown Down Bulova 13AH Pushers and Crown Bulova 13AH Case Side Bulova 13AH Front Bulova 13AH Front 2 Bulova 13AH Caseback

1969 Bulova Sea King Caliber 11BLC

When I choose watches to purchase, I usually have at least some idea of what I am getting into. When I do repairs for others it is always a guessing game. My most recent “restore” truly lived up to its name. It was a full on restore. I took a watch from scratched, rusted out, and not running to beautiful working order (If I may say so myself.) While work this extensive can be expensive it is really worth it if you are attached to the piece, and want more than a rusted lump sitting in the drawer. That being said this watch owner was relatively lucky. The rust did not penetrate into the more delicate (and expensive) bits, and as a result the replacements were mostly confined to the keyless works (the setting and winding bits of the watch.)

I was contacted about this Bulova Sea King from a person who had purchased it in knowingly bad cosmetic shape with a missing the crown. They had the belief that underneath the dirt and all back together, this watch would be a great vintage gem. They were right. The case was dirty but in fantastic condition, and underneath the scratched crystal was a near perfect movement. The real unknown was what the movement looked like.

Sea King Before  Bulova 1969 Sea King Before 2 Bulova 1969 Sea King Before 3

I received it without having seen the movement, so when I opened it up I was sad, but not shocked to see a lot of rust in the movement. When I see damage like this I feel it is important to contact the person and give them an honest assessment before proceeding. I believe that there is nothing worse than not knowing what costs to expect when dealing with restorations or services in general. It also provides an out should the person decide that the potential cost exceeds their expectations. Fortunately, this collector, while not entirely happy, chose to proceed.

Bulova 1969 Sea King Rust 2 Bulova 1969 Sea King Rust 1

My first step was to entirely disassemble and pre-inspect the parts. As I had said earlier, the rust was fortunately not on the balance, gears, or mainspring barrel. I replaced all the rusted out parts and then cleaned everything and reassembled.

Bulova 1969 Sea King Keyless Works Bulova 1969 Sea King Movement

Once the movement was done I got to the case. As can be seen in the original pictures sent to me the case tube had been crushed. It often does not look like it but the case and the case tube are often separate pieces. I did not know this until I had an unfortunate accident with my crystal press a few years ago. I accidentally crushed the tube on the case I was working on while I was fitting the crystal. After fitting a new tube, I cleaned the case thoroughly. This required several trips through the ultrasonic cleaner and the removal of a melted (and hardened) gasket and rust from the inside of the case. Additionally, there was some caked dirt that the cleaner just wasn’t getting rid of on its own. Once this was done I used a very fine abrasive and gently stayed with the grain of the case and brought the shine back without ruining or obscuring the finish. While the result is not as deep and precise as sand blasting (which is how that grain is put there in the first place) it is preserved and reflects light in the way the design intended. Underneath the dirt there were a few case scratches, but nothing major. Once I finally got the casework done I fit the crystal (obviously being mindful of the crown tube.)

Bulova 1969 Sea King Case-back

After I tracked down the crown I was able to complete this watch. Fortunately this was one of the rare instances where a repair comes in well under estimate. Back together this watch is an instance where its owner took a risk and was right. Beneath the dirt, scratches, and rust, it is a great vintage Bulova gem.

Bulova 1969 Sea King Finished Bulova 1969 Sea King Side Bulova 1969 Sea King Angle Bulova 1969 Sea King Front

1965 Bulova Railroad Approved Accutron Caliber 214

Bulova RR Approved Side

Ever since they were able to, Omega has boasted that they made “the first watch worn on the moon.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Speedmaster (and am wearing one as I write this piece) but their marketing slogan, while technically accurate, is still a bit misleading as to the full spectrum of horological instruments created for the space program. Among them was one of the greatest inventions in horology that wound up doing most of the horological “heavy lifting” for NASA. While Neil Armstrong was wearing an Omega caliber 321 Speedmaster when he took the first steps on the moon, the Bulova Accutron caliber 214 was powering the clock on the space shuttle, the clock and timer on the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), and just about every timer and clock used in every major satellite launched at the time. In essence, Bulova did all the major work, but Omega stole the spotlight at the last minute.

Two TE-12 Accutron clocks used by NASA

Two TE-12 Accutron clocks used by NASA

The Accutron 214 revolutionized timepiece accuracy. While Hamilton figured out how to replace the mainspring, their electric watches did not solve any of the major problems with the regulation and accuracy of wristwatches. Bulova’s tuning fork approach not only replaced the mainspring, it replaced the balance. In place of the balance are tuning forks that oscillate at 360Hz. To put this in perspective, a high-beat watch, like the Longines Ultra-Chron oscillates at 5Hz. This very high rate combined with a 320-toothed index wheel makes for the most stable rates and smoothest running second hand on a wristwatch. The movement was accurate to within a minute a month (or +/- 2 seconds/day.) When running, the coils produce the characteristic “hum” that many Accutron enthusiasts are seduced by. This innovation was unfortunately short lived as the quartz watch came to mass market just a few years after the Accutron series. The look of these watches however remains one of beautiful electrical and horological engineering that fits as well on the wrist as it does as Sci-Fi prop.

This particular 214 came to me in working condition, but in dire need of a cleaning and service. The fragile gear train and sensitive electronics necessitate keeping these pieces in tip-top internal shape to maintain their perfect working abilities. Fortunately Bulova did a fantastic job at making sure that the right tools were available for watchmakers to be able to service their watches. The 214 kits and manual make sure that the service of this watch is as easy as possible for a skilled watchmaker. Bulova also designed the 214 to not require full disassembly for a full service and cleaning. Since it had been so long since the watch was serviced however, I ignored that, and took the thing entirely apart for cleaning and inspection. After a full cleaning and reassembly, this Railroad Approved 214 was in action and ready to go for another 5 years.

The Bulova Accutron Tools.

The Bulova Accutron Tools.

Bulova RR Approved Holder Bulova RR Approved Disassembled

This 214 is a remarkable piece of working history, and as parts get harder and more expensive to come by (and unlike mechanical watches, parts cant be machined), it is always nice to be able to hand a beautiful working example back to its cherishing owner to be enjoyed for years to come.

Bulova RR Approved Movement Bulova RR Approved Front

1958 Military Issue Bulova A17A Caliber 10BNCH

Bulova A17A Front

My military watch restorations continue with this beautiful A17A Navigator’s Watch.

This watch came to me in fantastic external condition with the original and beautiful patina on the dial and hands. I saw this on eBay advertised in AS IS condition and I knew that if I could get it fixed it would make a fantastic addition to the military pieces I have worked on. Fortunately my gamble on a non-working watch paid off and the fix was not too tough.

It took me about 5 seconds to figure out that the mainspring on this A17A had snapped. This is one of the easiest problems to diagnose. If you have a non-working watch that you notice just winds and winds with no tension, chances are high that the mainspring is broken. As I waited for the new mainspring to arrive I serviced and inspected the rest of the movement. The A17A uses a 17 Jewel version of the Bulova Caliber 10BNCH which incorporated a few of the new military specifications that were developed after the legendary A11. Also used as a pilot’s and navigator’s watch, the A17A was equipped with a hack function to allow for the precise and coordinated setting of time. From my understanding, the A17A had to individually pass stringent time keeping and durability tests to meet the specification, making these watches not only rare, but incredibly well made.

Broken Mainspring

Broken Mainspring

A close up of the hack function

A close up of the hack function

There is some controversy (and fraud) with this particular watch as it comes in two very similar iterations. There is the A17A and the 3818-A. Aesthetically these watches are identical. Movement-wise these watches are almost identical. The differences come down to two major things: the engraving on the case back and 15 jewels vs. 17 jewels. As the A17A is a much more desirable, rare, and accurate watch, people often (knowingly or unknowingly) advertise a 3818-A as an A17A to get top dollar for it. If you are in the market for one beware! Always make sure it is the proper watch. Even more clever (or devious) people can put a 15-jewel movement in an A17A case and pass it off for one, so keep your eye out for both crucial details.

When it was all done, I put an older military canvas band on it to perfect the military feel to it. It can now be added to the growing collection of military pieces that I have restored.

Bulova A17A Flat Bulova A17A Side   Bulova A17A Back

Bulova A17A Movement 2 Bulova A17A Movement 1

1967 Bulova AeroJet Caliber 11ALACD

Bulova AeroJet Feature

To be entirely honest, I did not expect to love this Bulova AeroJet as much as I do. I originally purchased it in non-working condition with a crystal so scratched that it looked like someone had taken it to a belt sander. The only reason I got it was to use it as a harvester movement for another project. Once I finished with that watch I decided to get some practice on the AeroJet. The final result was a watch that is just as beautiful if not more so than the original project watch (in my opinion.)

Before the age of quartz, Bulova revolutionized the watchmaking industry by creating a series of reliable and well-made mechanical movements with parts that were largely interchangeable as well as easily ordered, intelligently marketed, and well packaged for watchmakers. This fact makes them great watches to work on as well as great watches to collect because their maintenance and repair are generally straightforward and reasonably priced.

When I was digging through my drawer for a new watch to work on, I decided on this AeroJet because I liked the patina on the hands and dial and the scratched up and dull case provided a good opportunity to practice my polishing skills.

The only problem with this watch (minus the fact that it was missing parts from the previous project) was that the oscillating weight axle was broken. An automatic watch is wound by motion that is transferred to an oscillating weight. As this weight rotates it winds the mainspring of the watch. Some watches have ball bearings and others have an axle. When the axle breaks it causes the rotor to wobble and makes it unable to sufficiently wind the watch. It also makes a distinctive rattling sound that indicates that something is clearly not right. In the picture below the one on the left is broken and the one on the right is in perfect shape.

Broken one on the left, proper replacement part on the right

Broken one on the left, proper replacement part on the right

After procuring the proper axle and parts, I fully serviced the watch. As the dial sat on my bench it grew on me. It is immaculate which is always nice to find. The long, thin, and slivered hour markers shine brilliantly and stand out against the plain dial. they add a particular vintage feel and elegance to this piece. The “AEROJET” on the dial is an addition that adds an unexpected amount of intrigue to the dial (if you don’t believe me, cover it up and see just how much simpler the dial appears to be.) Finally, the perfectly matched patina of the hands and hour dots (see above the markers) is especially rare to find with Bulovas, as interchangeability is a double-edged sword with things like this. Once I polished the case and got it all back together with a new crystal I became enamored with it. This feeling only grew when I put it on a tanned brown leather band that perfectly complements everything I love about the watch itself. To me, this piece represents everything that is great about vintage Bulovas: well made, elegant, easily serviceable, and affordable.

Bulova AeroJet Crown Up Bulova AeroJet  Front  Bulova AeroJet Back  Bulova AeroJet Movement Bulova AeroJet Side