Making Custom Watch Dials
October 4, 2015
The variety of aftermarket hands and dials available to the amateur watch customizer is growing steadily. The selection depends on the movement being used, with one of the largest collections being offered for Seiko movements, by sellers such as Dagaz Watches and Yobokies. When working with other movements, the selection is more limited or sometimes non-existent.
In the last year, I’ve undertaken three projects in which I was unable to purchase the desired dial:
- Adventurer, a 39mm Explorer-style watch featuring a dial and hands modeled after a military version of a vintage Rolex Submariner. This watch was based on an Orient Chicane, whose movement accepts Seiko-compatible hands, but an oversize Submariner-style dial was simply not available.
- Oceanographer, paying homage to the Omega Seamaster 300, and based on a Vostok Amphibia. The stock hands were close enough to the desired style, but none of the many available new and vintage Vostok dials looked even remotely like that of the Omega.
- Evolution, another Explorer-style watch, this time based on a 36mm Alpha Explorer, with a dial combining design cues from both the 1016 and 14270 Rolex Explorers, and hands in vintage Tudor Ranger style. Appropriate hands were easy to find for the Sea Gull movement, but the dial I had in mind did not exist.
The solution for each of these projects was a home-made dial. The Adventurer and Evolution dials were made using high-quality photo paper, and the techniques used are described in the remainder of this article. The Oceanographer dial used a different technique (water slide decal over luminous film), and will be described in a separate article later.
Preparing the Existing Dial
All the dials were made using the original dial as a base. The dial was removed from the watch, the existing indices and artwork stripped off, new artwork and indices applied, and the dial reinstalled. This requires opening the case back, removing the crown, removing the movement and dial as a unit, removing the hands, and finally separating the dial from the movement.
The Orient and Alpha dials both had applied indices and numerals, and the Orient also had a date window frame. These were easy to remove by pushing them out from the back using a pin. I saved these parts for possible use in future projects.
With the applied bits removed, the next step was a bath in acetone. This had different effects on the two dials. From the Orient dial, it removed the Orient logo and all the printing (minute indices and “Water Resist”). The dark red transparent base colour was left completely untouched. The Alpha dial on the other hand was stripped clean by the acetone. Both the base coat and all the printed markings came off, almost as a single sheet.
None of my designs called for a date window, but the Orient dial had one, which needed to be filled in. I applied a piece of tape over the window on the back of the dial, and then filled the window with JB Weld (steel-filled epoxy) from the front, using just enough to protrude slightly above the front surface. This would be sanded level later.
Since the Orient dial’s base coat was unaffected by the acetone, I resorted to sanding to get almost down to bare metal. This also took care of levelling the date window filler. To hold the dial securely for sanding, I prepared a hardwood block, drilled with a pair of holes for the dial feet and a central hole for a 2mm brass tube (the same diameter as the dial hole). During sanding, the tube was pushed down flush with the surface of the dial so the sanding block could pass right over it.
I sanded using wooden blocks faced with sandpaper. I started with medium grit paper to remove most of the base coat quickly. Once I was nearly down to bare metal, I switched to progressively finer grits to produce a reasonably smooth finish. The Orient dial had a slight texture embossed in the brass, so I stopped when the remaining lacquer was flush with the brass.
There are many ways to create new dial artwork. Commercial dials are usually made by pad printing markings on top of a lacquer or enamel background, a process requiring specialized skills, equipment, and inks.
Fortunately, with some care, today’s inexpensive consumer-grade inkjet printers are capable of producing artwork almost as nice looking as many commercially printed dials, lacking only the texture of thickly printed inks.
To print a high resolution dial, one needs to start with high resolution artwork. This can be prepared interactively using tools like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop (the latter is not ideal, as it provides no facilities to easily align things precisely).
Alternatively, if you have the skills and appropriate programming tools, you can write a program to generate the artwork. Doing it this way makes it easy to generate evenly spaced and sized indices and perfectly centered text. It also allows experimenting with dozens of dial variations by adjusting a few parameters and running the program again. I created my dial artwork using a program written in the Maple language. After determining the required dimensions by measuring the existing dial and case, I wrote a program to generate a 1200dpi TIFF image (reproduced above at a lower resolution).
To ensure proper alignment of the artwork to the dial blank, movement, and case, I marked the 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock positions on the dial holding block I had made earlier. This is best done before removing the existing artwork. Precision is important here, because even tiny misalignments can be apparent in the finished product. Make the alignment marks with a very sharp hard pencil or with a hobby knife.
Depending on your printer, you may have to go into the custom settings to achieve the desired resolution. For my HP OfficeJet 7612, this involves choosing the appropriate paper type, and then selecting “Maximum DPI” in the advanced settings dialog.
Many inkjet printers will print purely black and white artwork using only black ink, but will switch to colour ink if there is any colour in the artwork. With the aforementioned HP printer, I found that the black ink did not produce a very satisfactory result at all. To get around this, I regenerated the dial artwork so that the black areas were actually a very dark blue (about 8% brightness). Printing this resulted in a much sharper image that was indistinguishable from black.
When printing large images such as photos from your vacation, the printer will usually print a few centimetres of the image, and then pause as it assembles the next stripe in memory. During this pause, the previous stripe has a chance to dry, and when the next stripe is eventually printed, a very slight ridge results. This is imperceptible on photographs, but very visible on a solid colour watch dial.
Fortunately, watch dials are very small, and I’ve found that the printer can print a small image consisting of only one or two copies of the dial without pausing. To avoid feeding the same sheet of paper through the printer over and over when printing multiple copies, I cut the letter-sized sheets of photo paper into six approximately square pieces. I then print two dials on one piece at a time.
Making the Dial
The Adventurer and Evolution dials were printed on HP Premium Plus Glossy Photo Paper. This paper allows very high resolution printing without the individual ink dots spreading and producing fuzzy edges.
After waiting a few hours for the ink to dry, I applied several coats of Krylon Crystal Clear gloss acrylic lacquer, waiting a few minutes between coats. This serves to protect the artwork from damage while working with the dial.
Unless you work in a clean room, there’s a very good chance that the artwork will pick up a speck or two of dust while the lacquer is drying. The odds of this happening can be reduced by thoroughly vacuuming the area in which you will be working, and by minimizing air circulation by closing windows, doors, and heating vents. However, dust specks will still happen, and the best way to deal with them is to prepare several dials at once, in hopes that at least a few will turn out.
Once the lacquer is thoroughly dry (I’d suggesting waiting 24 hours), the dial can be cut out using either very sharp scissors or a circle cutter. Look at each dial carefully under a loupe and choose one with no printing or finishing defects.
If the completed dial is to have a gloss finish, it should be polished before cutting it out. Even the most carefully applied gloss lacquer will have a bit of texture that can be polished away. I used a 12000 grit MicroMesh pad, followed up with polyWatch acrylic watch crystal polishing compound, to produce a near mirror-like finish.
When cutting the dial with a circle cutter, use a new sharp blade, place the pivot of the cutter in the centre of the artwork, and carefully adjust the radius so the blade falls exactly on the edge of the artwork. Then, while holding the cutter stationary and applying very light pressure, rotate the artwork as many times as necessary to cut cleanly all the way through.
Regardless of the technique used to cut out the dial, try not to touch the dial itself. The lacquer picks up finger prints easily and they can be remarkably hard to remove.
The easiest way to cut the centre hole is to use a punch. Most watches will require a 2mm hole, whereas a movement with a fourth hand (alarm or second time zone) might require a 2.5mm hole. Both are readily available as leather punches, although these are remarkably dull and will not cut paper cleanly as-is. They are easily sharpened by chucking the punch into a drill and then using first a file, and then fine emery cloth, to reduce the outside diameter near the tip until the edge is sharp.
I’ve found that the easiest way to punch the hole is using a drill press to hold the punch. The artwork is then placed on a hardwood block and the punch lowered until it is almost touching. This allows the punch and artwork to be viewed from all sides to ensure it is centered before pressing down to punch the hole. The proof of a perfectly punched hole is a perfectly centered alignment cross-hair in the punched out piece.
The artwork is attached to the dial blank with adhesive. I considered a number of possibilities, but settled on T-88 marine epoxy. This is thinner than typical hardware store epoxy, is easy to apply in a very thin layer, has a working time of at least 30 minutes, will not cause the photo paper to swell, and remains slightly flexible once cured. I also use this epoxy for other non-watch projects, so had plenty on hand. If this isn’t readily available, hardware store epoxy will do, but stay away from the 5-minute variety as this cures too fast and becomes brittle.
I first placed a piece of wax paper on the dial holding block so that any epoxy that oozed through the holes that originally kept the indices aligned wouldn’t glue the dial to the block. Next, I mixed up a small batch of epoxy (about two drops of each part), and applied a little to the dial blank. A small piece of card stock was used to spread it around, evenly and thinly. I stayed about a millimetre away from the centre hole as I did not want to glue the dial to the brass tube either.
Once the brass was evenly coated, I carefully lowered the artwork onto it. The central brass tube ensured the artwork would be perfectly centered. Because of the long working time of the epoxy, I could take my time making sure that the dial was aligned correctly. Uncured epoxy has the consistency of liquid honey, so it’s very easy to rotate the artwork back and forth, being careful not to touch the part of the dial that will be visible (especially not after invariably getting a bit of epoxy on one’s fingers).
When I was happy with the alignment, it was time to clamp the artwork in place until the epoxy cured. I used a block of clear plastic into which I had drilled a 2mm hole to fit over the central brass tube. To protect the dial surface, a piece of adhesive label backing, cut into a circle slightly smaller than the dial, was placed between the dial and plastic. Using the clear plastic and circular label backing leaves the alignment marks visible to check the artwork isn’t inadvertantly rotated while clamping.
The word “clamping” is a bit of an overstatement. Epoxy requires only enough clamping pressure to keep the parts being glued in proper contact. Any more pressure will just squeeze the epoxy out of the joint. To apply this pressure, I placed a few small battery packs (from my electric model airplane days) on top of the block, being careful to centre them so the pressure would be even. I left this overnight to cure.
Things That Go Bump in the Night
If you examine the photo of the plastic block above carefully, you’ll notice there’s a second hole about 10mm to the left of the central hole, and that this hole falls roughly between the 9 and 10 o’clock markers on the dial. Well, that hole had a barely noticeable ridge around it, which impressed itself into the photo paper as the dial cured overnight, creating a dimple and ruining an otherwise perfect finish.
I decided to try to salvage the dial by carefully sanding the finish, first with 2000 grit sandpaper, followed by 12000 grit MicroMesh. As I started to sand through the lacquer at the edges of the dial, I sprayed on new coats of lacquer, let them dry, and sanded some more.
After a few iterations of this, I concluded I’d never completely get rid of the bump, and that it would remain plainly visible if I stuck with my original plan of having a glossy finish. I decided to carry on with the dial as-is, and then apply a matte finish to hide the bump. I’m happy to report that this made the bump completely invisible.
Needless to say, I learned from this mistake. When I made the dial for the Evolution, I made sure that the plastic block was completely flat. Instead of decal backing paper, I used a piece of plastic vapour barrier material, this being both thicker and softer. No bumps appeared in the Evolution dial.
Making and Applying Luminous Indices
The traditional way to make luminous indices is to paint the luminous compound onto the printed indices. This requires a very fine brush, a steady hand, and a lot of patience. I’m lucky to have all of those, but I decided to try a different approach, because one drawback of painted-on lume is that one mistake can ruin the entire dial.
The technique I used involves cutting the indices out of self adhesive luminous material. For the Adventurer, I made this myself by painting many coats of luminous paint (Glow Inc.’s water based Watch Lume Formula) on a piece of inkjet label. The label backing sheet was attached to a smooth block of wood using thin double-sided tape.
After each coat of paint, I would sand off the high spots (that paint, although very luminous, is somewhat lumpy) before appying the next coat. I used a sanding block with pieces of thick card stock glued to each end to ensure I was sanding the paint to a precise level. I also checked the uniformity of the glow after sanding each coat, as this made it easier to see where more paint was needed.
After 14 coats, the result was a thick sheet of perfectly smooth lume with adhesive on the back.
Instead of this home-made luminous material, I used commercially available luminous tape (Jessup #7550) to make the indices for the Evolution.
Whether using home-made lume or the commercial product, the steps for making the individual indices are the same. The round indices of the Adventurer dial were punched out using the same sharpened 2mm leather punch that I used for the dial centre hole. Before doing this, I thoroughly cleaned the inside and outside of the punch with a toothpick so that the indices would not be contaminated. I punched the indices by hand, pressing hard enough to cut through the lume and the paper label material, but not the label backing. After punching out each index, I used a small brass tube to push it out of the punch and onto another piece of label backing material.
Each index was applied to the dial using a pair of watchmaker’s tweezers. The luminous material is quite soft, so I had to be careful to not deform the indices as I carried them with the tweezers. After each index was placed on the dial, I carefully checked that it was centered in the printed index, and then pressed down on it using the flat surface of the back of the tweezers to ensure a good bond.
The rectangular indices were made by first cutting two parallel lines to make a strip of the right width, and then cutting this into pieces of the appropriate length. To make the triangular indices, I marked the wooden block holding the luminous material at four points, defining two lines that crossed over at the correct angle (since the artwork was generated mathematically, it was easy to determine the spacing of these points using the concept of similar triangles). Once a properly pointed wedge had been cut, I cut this to the correct length.
Here are some photos of the Adventurer dial after all the indices were applied:
The Evolution dial’s indices were cut and applied in the same way as the Adventurer’s rectangular and triangular indices, except they were cut from commercially available tape. Like the modern Rolex Explorer (14270 and newer), the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock numerals are non-luminous, as cutting those from the rather thick tape would have been very hard to do accurately.
Because of the dimple introduced during clamping, the Adventurer dial was to receive a matte finish, and I decided to apply this after the indices were in place. This would have the extra benefit of sealing the edges of the indices to the dial. I used Krylon UV-Resistant Matte acrylic lacquer for this final finish, applying many light coats (about 20) until the dimple at 9:30 was no longer visible. Before each coat, I carefully inspected the dial for dust specks, and used canned compressed air and Rodico watchmaker’s putty to make sure it was perfectly clean. Any trapped dust particles at this point would almost certainly have resulted in needing to start over from the beginning.
The photo shows the dial after the last matte coat was dry. If you look very carefully, the dimple can still be seen as a very subtle difference in texture, but it is completely unnoticeable, even if you know where to look, in the completed watch. It was difficult to even get it to show up in the photo.
Unfortunately, I neglected to take any photographs of the Evolution dial after the indices were applied, but it looked approximately the same, except with a high-gloss finish. Unlike the Adventurer dial, no lacquer was applied after the indices, as it would not have been possible to polish the finish afterwards. The adhesive on the commerical luminous tape was also much stronger than that of the home-made lume, so I was less worried about needing to seal the indices.
Dial Spacing Issues
With the dial completed, the watch was almost ready for reassembly. One last issue to address was hand clearance and movement installation depth.
A drawback of applying a photo paper facia to an existing dial blank is that the resulting dial will be significantly thicker than the original dial with its thinly applied lacquer-only finish. For example, the dial of the Alpha Explorer was 0.42mm thick (not including the applied indices). After stripping the original finish, this decreased to 0.37mm, but after applying the new artwork, the finished dial was 0.68mm thick, which is 0.26mm thicker than the original dial.
A quarter millimetre (1/100th of an inch) may not sound like a lot, but on the scale of a watch, it is. There is no longer enough height available to install the hour hand without it dragging on the dial, and the misalignment of the movement with the crown tube in the case would make the crown difficult or impossible to operate, and also compromise its water resistance.
Fortunately, there was an easy fix for both the Adventurer and Evolution. The movements in both watches were originally installed with a spacer ring between the movement and dial. The Orient used a plastic ring with a ridge to provide proper spacing, which I was able to shave off using a hobby knife.
The Alpha’s dial was separated from the movement by a thin brass ring, 0.57mm thick. By reducing the thickness of this ring to 0.31mm, the back of the dial was brought 0.26mm closer to the movement, thus restoring the original hand clearance and movement alignment.
To reduce the thickness, I first attached the ring to a block of wood using double-sided carpet tape. I then measured the thickness of the entire assembly (wood, tape, and ring) at various points. I sanded the ring using another block of wood faced with fine emery cloth, periodically measuring the thickness. When it had been reduced by 0.26mm at all points on the ring, I removed the ring from the tape, and used some 600 grit sandpaper to sand off the burr that had formed on the inside and outside edges. Lastly, I thoroughly cleaned the ring to ensure no loose brass filings would find their way into the movement.
At this point, everything is done, and the watch is ready for reassembly. This proceeds the same way as usual, first fastening the dial to the movement ensuring that it is seated all the way before tightening the dial foot screws. The hands come next, starting with the hour hand. Although the photo paper dials are fairly robust, the finish is more delicate than that of a factory made dial. Everything should be done with extra care to avoid damaging the dial surface. For example, even a slip with a plastic-tipped hand setter could scratch or dent the dial.
During reassembly, pay careful attention to hand clearance. Although the dial-to-hand clearance should now be as it was originally, there is always the potential for hands to interfere with the indices if the new indices are larger or thicker than the old ones, or the new hands (if they were replaced) are longer.
Once everything is correct, the movement can be reinstalled in the case. Carefully inspect the dial, hands, inside of the crystal, and the rehaut (the visible part of the watch case between the crystal and the dial) for dust, fibres, and smudges. Rodico putty is your friend here, letting you remove such contamination without danger of scratching something. Personally, I always dread the reassembly step, because I always end up repeating it three or four times before I stop finding yet another dust speck right after I’ve closed up the watch. But in the end, it’s all worth it!
A custom dial is the next logical step after modding a few watches using stock aftermarket dials. Today’s printers and photo paper make it possible for the hobbyist to produce an acceptable one-of-a-kind dial fairly easily. Great care must be taken to ensure one ends up with a satisfactory result, but that is true of every facet of watchmaking. The end product can be as good as your patience allows.
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