Thursday, June 21, 2018

Major Milestone

Major milestone: we've planted the watch winding stem! 0.6 mm drill travelling 20mm down to create 1.2mm deep hole. The action is at half speed and quite frankly nerve wracking. Next step: dial feet fasteners then some fine tuning. Yes, out of all places- watch made in Australia!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Watchmaker's regulator update

On Sunday, six hours were spent behind the Schaublin turning the barrel. The end result: about half done. I needed the grooving insert and boring bar to continue further, and, quite frankly, after standing for six hours my legs were just killing me. Josh quickly placed an order for tools and on Thursday a small packet arrived from Sumitomo, Japan.
Sumitomo was founded in 1907 and today is one of the fine-tuned, multi-industry corporations which span from automotive to energy, electronics, semi-conductors to toolmaking.  The cutting tools division was founded in 1927 with the development of cement carbide inserts. To say that they know how to make an excellent cutter would be an understatement. As expected, the small parcel on the bench was every bit you would expect from the land of the rising sun: a piece of art itself.
There is no guesswork figuring out the cutting speed or misunderstanding the other important parameters. Each insert is individually bar coded and traceable - indicating that a tool like this is used to make components that will later fit into devices of the most importance - think of airplanes and submarines, satellites and super fast trains - where mistake is not an option. Certainly an overkill for a humble Australian handmade clock – but, to be perfectly honest, being exposed to perfection is not a bad thing.
One thing is certain - if you can't turn a 17th century clock part on a Swiss Schaublin using the most advanced Japanese cutter then you have no-one to blame but yourself.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A bizarre conversation in the factory fires up our most important tool – our imagination

To be perfectly honest with you, the novelty of making the most perfect regulator gear wore off pretty quickly. While the machining process is painfully slow - and painfully expensive - the end result is predictable:  each wheel is identical to the previous one down to a couple of microns. Yes, we are dreaming the dream of every horologist who has lived in the past 500 years.  But perfection, without imagination, is simply boring.
On Wednesday Andrew and myself were just about to cut the last spoke, and we started thinking about how to design a recess which will accept a power maintaining spring. Traditionally, the spring itself is just an unattractive steel wire hidden behind the gear.
"I am sure we can do better than that, my boy" was enough to kick the young apprentice’s mind into gear.
"What if we make the spring out of brass?  What if we design it to become an integral part of the wheel itself?" He asked. 
"Sure - but why stop there?" I replied. "Let’s make it in the shape of a little sea monster who will hold the return pin in his mouth".
We argued a bit whether the sea monster had ears, does our mystical creature look more like a worm or a caterpillar, while Josh poured cold water on the idea by pointing out that brass has a very poor elasticity memory and our spring is not going to work at all. 
But it did.
It worked brilliantly: it fired up the most important tool we have - our imagination.
We can all clearly see that every regulator clock we are going to make will have a small, imperfect hand-filed and hand-finished "living" mystical creature in it; a dragon or a rabbit, perhaps a snake or a lizard, which will live inside the perfect mechanism like a little clock guardian. 
As crazy as it sounds, I wonder why in 500 years of gear cutting has no-one thought of this?

Monday, May 28, 2018

A quick update on the watchmaker's regulator

It's coming up alright.  The drawings are pretty much done and, with a bit of luck, we will start machining the first parts on Wednesday so stay tuned.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Watchmaking: From mill to EDM and back (making the balance wheel cock)

For those of you who are following the progress of the workshop, after about a week of not making any measurable progress whatsoever, Josh and Andrew programmed and machined the balance cock.  What makes this project special is that for the first time we are able to directly transfer a machined component from the mill to EDM wire cutter and then back to mill without loss of accuracy.  In other words, you can use Machine A, Machine B and then go back to Machine A all on the same component. We are also able to prototype components of a thickness below 0.3 of a millimetre, which is the thickness of the balance wheel cock at the point where it receives the incabloc jewel.  Stay tuned for more updates.
If you missed the video we talked about last week that NYC CNC recorded while setting up the workshop a few months ago, here is the link:

Monday, May 21, 2018

NYC CNC in Sydney

Earlier this year, while we were literally unpacking and setting up our newly-arrived machinery, Josh and Andrew got a knock on the door from a young American who happened to be in Sydney. His name is John. About 10 years ago, he got excited about CNC machining and bought a tiny mill which he then installed in his even tinier New York apartment. He started video recording his journey and sharing it on YouTube. Today, he is probably the most influential CNC YouTuber with a quarter of a million subscribers. John now runs his own CNC workshop but continues to tour the US visiting various manufacturers and sharing their stories.

Josh simply could not say no to John - so he invited him into our small workshop.   The video itself is an amazing story of what happens when two young people, crazy about precision machining, bump into each other.

I am sure you will enjoy it.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Made In Australia Project Update

Another busy and productive week. The current 'release' is 2.01 which means we have now moved to top movement layer:
- train / barrel bridge designed and milled
- bridge adjusted to height and jewelled
- successful test run, correct amplitude and timekeeping
In this phase we are slowly moving away from Unitas 6498 design and away from direct compatibility. In other words, we are no longer cloning but also 'genetically modifying'. 
There is still more to be done at the top layer: drilling and tapping for the crown wheel and click /click spring, as well as milling the channel for the sliding pinion. We expect to continue further as soon as we receive a few more tools and tool holders from the land of Heidi.
Obviously we are not focusing on finishes - the mechanism is still in its 'raw' form.
Very pleased to note that our project is generating a considerable amount of interest primarily from fellow European watchmakers and machinists. Can't ask for more!
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Schaublin 102 - finally

This is probably the third or even fourth post on 102 - the most agonising tool acquisition since we decided to get into watch manufacturing. Full credit goes to a handful of subscribers who, despite my own doubts, remained stubbornly supportive and pointed out the obvious: while 102 costs more than a mid-class European sedan, it will not only pay itself off  but it will outlast 5 cars.

Yet it was only after we unpacked the lathe that we were blown away with its beauty.

And I am not talking here merely about the quality of workmanship, the lack of backlash, or the way various attachments fit perfectly into each other.  It is the very maturity of the Schaublin lathe that will impress any keen machinist: after 100 years of development, 102 has reached the stage where
there is really nothing that could have been done better, simpler, more accurate or more beautiful. We could hear its voice: "I, the tool, was here decades before your grandfather, making watch and clock parts. And I am here to stay, to outlive you and your apprentices. Respect me, take good care of me, learn how to play me and play with me -  and you will be amazed."

In a way, my mission is accomplished. We got the Stradivarius - and we are now ready for an Aussie Paganini to play on it.

Thinking of becoming a watchmaker's apprentice? More than ever, we are looking for enthusiastic, keen and talented kids to join our project in January 2019. Time to apply - is now.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Seeing is believing

Watchmaking is all about precision - and taking accurate measurements during the design and manufacturing process is essential. However, when it comes to the art of horology, often the relationship between arbours, bearings and gear meshing is a matter of 'how if feels' rather then how it should be engineered. As strange as it may seem, often the 'ideal' fit is not the most desired one; theoretical shapes and tolerances are not the most perfect. Why? Because tight tolerances do not necessary translate into long-term reliability or the best timekeeping under stress, changes in temperature and gravity. There is a saying that engineers are poor watchmakers which is equally true the other way around.
Some of you may remember the acquisition of a microscope for our workshop. I certainly do - we  sacrificed a really fine watch in order to acquire this lovely instrument. But it was worth it!  When it comes to the inspection of surfaces, part geometry, and the inspection of cutting tools, a microscope is worth its weight in gold. Trying to make a watch without being able to understand how the Swiss have done it would be impossible. So we observe, learn and try to replicate.
Here are just two examples. The first photo shows the mesh in a high grade Swiss watch. The second one is our attempt to copy the Swiss. A person with a keen eye could clearly see the difference in the meshing depth between the two examples. Without any doubt, our mesh is far tighter, more precise, and follows the 'ideal' calculated point of contact. However, we soon discovered that the sloppier Swiss way was actually more desirable. The winding action was actually smoother than ours! Lesson learned.
The second example: a short video showing the very tip of the balance staff inside the shock absorbing jewel. This is an actual recording of a high grade Swiss watch still in brand new condition. I have no doubt that any engineer (or car mechanic) would be horrified. But this is how it is, and this is how it's done. Check it out: Of course, do keep in mind that you are observing an arbour with 100 microns diameter under 240 x magnification.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Main plate holder [watchmaking]

The purpose of this quick report is just that - to provide an update to those who follow our watchmaking progress. Also, we feel that sharing our trials and tribulations may one day help someone on their own watchmaking journey.
Last week we started to prototype the main plate. The main focus was on positional tolerances and working out the 'perfect' press fit for the main train jewels. But it wasn't long until we figured out that we are wasting too much material; precisely over 60%. In addition, our work holding method was excellent in relation to rigidity, however, our solution would be very inefficient for mass production - even a quantity of just a dozen pieces at a time.
We had two options: To continue with prototyping or to pause and find a better clamping solution before we go any further. I voted for the first option: to keep learning and not to worry about waste. However, I was quickly outvoted by Josh (who already had Andrew on his side). The final straw was a video which clearly shows a very effective mainplate holding solution on Willemin Macodel CNC, as demonstrated at Baselworld in 2015.  Here is the link to it.  Definitely worth watching:
In just 3 working days, putting in a solid 50 hours of work, Josh and Andrew designed, coded and manufactured our new 'clamp'. The benefits are already paying off: 
- we can use a smaller blank than before, while there is no compromise on rigidity;
- the brass waste is now below 50%
- the new work-holding piece allows for both sides milling plus 90 deg side cut without having to re-clamp the piece;
- and, most importantly, the new blanks could be clamped directly without pre-machining preparation which saves 25 minutes per piece!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

4-Jaw Chuck

Some hobbyist machinists love it - and others hate it. And, I guess, it is fair to say that those who hate it have actually never got around to learning how to centre it properly. Which is rather a shame because there are countless YouTube videos out there dealing with the subject. 
Our Schaublin 102 is still somewhere south of Suez, but the 4-jaw chuck arrived separately this week. It was a 'non-catalogue' accessory supplied by Rohm. This was a bit of surprise - after all, Schaublin is a work-holding specialist themselves. However, the 4-jaw chucks are a much different beast than collets.  
Rohm is a German family business which specialises in chucks. They've been making lathe chucks since 1909 and they are regarded as the world's leading chuck manufacturer. And that's all they do. (Have you noticed that the O in Rohm is actually a chuck?). This German company is very proud of the fact that they can manufacture work-holding pieces up to 4 metres in diameter and weighing 25 tons! When it comes to production capacity: Rohm can assemble 92,000 chucks in 5 days. 
There is something mighty powerful about German manufacturing - and we are proud to have a piece of it in our Sydney workshop.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Baby steps

The inner bearing surface of the watch jewel is one of the most 'perfect' surfaces on Earth! Made of synthetic ruby, jewels are laser-drilled, then polished with tungsten wire and diamond paste. Both the inner and outer diameter are perfect as well. This one is R=0.500 mm and the inner radius is just 50 microns. However, the modern jewels are still the pale shade of jewels used in the finest 1800's marine chronometers which were made of real diamonds, hand-drilled and hand-polished - and still perfectly functional today!

Last week we started machining our first watch main plate. The challenge: to figure out both jewel hole sizes and the distances/angles between the jewels in the main train. These are watchmaking machining fundamentals - and yet another of the many best kept secrets in the watchmaking industry. While you can tell your mill where to create a hole, and while you know what the outside diameter of the jewel is, finding the 'perfect' friction fit between ruby and brass is something you can only figure out after a number of attempts. No machine or software can tell you how 'just right' feels like; it is the years behind the watchmaker's bench which ultimately determines the outcome.

The bottom line is this:  If your shaft is the size of a hair, how much off centre can you afford to be?

After last week's exercise, Josh started making a bold prediction how soon we could potentially have our in-house movement. I am still very cautious and conservative, and reluctant to be drawn into speculation, but there isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that one day we will have a true made in Australia calibre. Exciting days ahead!

Friday, March 23, 2018

What others call fine-gloss finish we call roughing

Yesterday we undertook a practical exercise; the roughing of a piece of 316L steel.  Roughing simply means removing the top layer of material rapidly in order to prepare a surface for machining.  In other words, think of it as levelling your block before starting the build of a house.  

The tool of choice was a 4mm end mill.  The machining was done in the Kern Pyramid Nano and it was Andrew and Josh's first job in the workshop.

After the milling operation the surface finish was so smooth and even that it left them speechless.  Actually it's so good that the process can be applied straight away to watch bridges and finish.  
We can only imagine what kind of surface we will achieve with a diamond or ceramic tool.  

Certainly the credit goes to the hydro-static guides of the Pyramid Nano.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Well done Maxx Tooling

We are impressed! On Friday we placed an order for a pneumatic-held vice
and it arrived on Monday. That would be an impressive delivery time even for Sydney metro - let alone for a part which flew in from Michigan US.

MAXX specialises in custom engineered and machined parts and tool holders.
If you visit their website you won’t find much about the company (it’s almost an underground operation!). However, they are very serious about quality and precision.

So what is the benefit of a MAXX solution? We can now machine a part in our 5 axes Kern mill and then transfer the same part holder to our Makino EDM to continue with further operations. One part, one holder, two completely different machines and machining processes - no loss in accuracy.

And yes, the EDM clamp held in the MAXX vice was made in Brookvale, in our
workshop. Good job apprentices!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Heat treatment of watchmaking micro-components

Regardless what kind of metal machining shop you intend to setup and what is your intended product (a car engine or a watch!) your ultimate goal is to enable yourself to do certain tasks and processes. Starting with relatively simple ones: To draw and measure. The ability to hold and grab firmly and accurately is the next goal. Then to cut, drill and tap, weld and solder. From then on, you are moving into more serious operations which require sophisticated machinery: turning, milling, grinding.  Obviously your product has to look appealing so you should invest in deburring and polishing equipment as well. Another sometimes overlooked aspect of metalworking: The ability to soften or harden metal. And this is precisely where we are right now.

A number of  steel watch parts (stem, levers, screws, arbours) undergo both pre-machining and post-machining heat treatments. A typical furnace has to provide not only a relatively high temperature (up to 1100 C) but the temperature has to be constant within a very tight range over a very vast spectrum from 100 C to 1100 C. In addition, the parts compartment must remain oxygen-free during the entire process. A quality furnace would also incorporate an oil quenching tank and shielding with inert gas. Yes, while the basics of metal heat treatment are rather simple and well-known, watchmaking furnaces are fairly complex performance-wise.

Taking into account our low volume and part size we have opted for the smallest furnace by Borel. (Don't be fooled with its size - it weighs almost 200kg!) Borel is a Swiss manufacturer which supplies equipment to all the top Swiss watch brands. The company was founded in 1918 by Dr. Charles Borel. As of last year, Borel is a division of SOLO Group, located in Porrentruy, Jura.

If you are a watchmaker or machinist specialised in micro components which require heat treatment then we would be happy to assist - especially if you have issues with scaling and oxidation.  Contact us at

Friday, March 16, 2018

An addiction to tools is no different to any other - you just need one more

Last year we put out a questionnaire trying to figure out why you follow us?  The majority of our subscribers are here for the obvious:  A love of watches. However, there is a growing group of subscribers who are fascinated with machining, precision and fine tools. And for them, from time to time,  we include a photo or two to illustrate our journey into the world of 'making'. Disclaimer: since I am not the one who operates the machines, I don't take credit for anything you'll see here – all the credit goes to the kids.
Yesterday’s challenge:  To make a tool 'fixture'. Fixtures are work-holding devices designed to hold, locate and support raw material or parts during manufacturing operations. There is another special property of the fixture: it provides a means to reference and alignment for the cutting tool.

In other words:  The quality of your part is directly related to the quality of your fixture. Or, as machinists say: if you want to make a precision part, you need a super precision fixture.  Which logically brings us to a challenge:  If your part is a fixture, then how do you make a fixture to hold  your first fixture?

To cut a long story short, two pieces of steel were individually  and separately cut, then a number of holes were drilled and taped. Locating and guiding pins were inserted. Then the moment of truth: The pieces were joined together. "Where is the gap?" asked Josh. No-one replied; it was well past 10pm and he was in the workshop by himself.  "I am going to engrave Andrew and Josh on this one" was the first thing he told me after arriving home close to midnight.  "In that order?" I’ve asked.
But he didn't hear me. His thoughts were 17,000 kilometres away. "You know, we need to call MAXX in Michigan. They make a super precision vice, and we need one for Kern." "Didn't we just order one from Lang?” I asked.  "Yes, but we need one more!"

And that summed it up. Addiction to tools is no different to any other:  you just need - one more.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We told him he couldn't leave until he cut the perfect cube

A couple of days ago we locked Andrew up in the workshop. We told him he couldn’t leave until he cut the perfect cube. Material: stainless steel 316L grade, the same stuff the Swiss watch cases are made of.  Luckily, Andrew didn’t bother asking us to clarify what perfection meant to us. To ask a watchmaker’s apprentice to cut the perfect cube on a Makino U32J is like giving the keys of your brand new Ferrari to a teenager and asking him to find out how fast it can go.

Oh, yes, the first few attempts were rather disappointing but he just kept pushing that pedal harder. On the second day he finally got his parameters right ("I was so excited I almost hugged Josh!") . 

So what is perfection? The short answer is:  We really don’t know. Once again, we have reached sub-micron levels where actual dimensions of a metal cube are no longer stable; where metal expands and shrinks purely due to the change in room temperature; where the measuring machine itself influences the piece measured; and where human error in acquisition of parameters is greater than the machine’s ability to measure the part.

Once again on a 10mm-side cube, to his shock and horror, Andrew has reached sub-micron precision. In Brookvale! 

So what’s next? We are now ready to go to the next level: integration of CAD and CAM software so we can finally start prototyping the most intriguing, irregular shapes. Like, for example, levers and springs pictured below. By the way, these springs come from a junk box of American pocket watches from around 1890-1920.  They do look scary - like an arsenal of inquisition/torturing tools! For us, they are highly motivational - if Americans could make such delicate high precision watch parts back then using 19th century machinery, surely we should be able to at least do the same today.