Assembling the Contrail
Wes and I personally handle virtually every aspect of Nodus: design, website, social media, photography, marketing, packaging/fulfillment, supply chain - pretty much everything just short of the actual manufacturing of the watches. One of the more time-consuming and important responsibilities that we have is assembling our watches. When our parts arrive from our suppliers and we have hundreds of orders waiting to be fulfilled, we say goodbye to all semblances of leisure and sleep, and begin a weeks-long assembly process.
In order to maximize efficiency, we break down the assembly process into multiple stages: inspection, dial affixture, hand installation, movement testing and regulation, casing, bezel insert installation, final testing, and finally packaging/fulfillment.
Assembly is a breeze when the parts are good, and a nightmare when the parts are not. Weeding out all the bad parts early in the assembly process in crucial for saving time later on, and when you’re assembling your 240th watch in a row and really feeling the grind weigh down on you, every second saved seems like a godsend.
A harsh light is our best friend when it comes to inspection, and we look for things such as marks on dials, lume inconsistencies, scratches on hands, and uneven brushing on the cases. Inspection is easy - what’s difficult is watching the scrap bin fill up as parts fail the inspection process. Based on our experience, we tend to order 5-10% extra parts from our factories so that we have enough good parts to use for a full run.
The Contrail uses the Miyota 9015 movement which requires a metal spacer ring and two screws to affix a dial to the movement (other movements such as the Seiko NH35A do not require any spacer rings or screws; the dial is just pressed into the movement). After the dial is successfully affixed to the movement and the screws are tightened, we make sure the date window and date wheel are aligned properly. If the date window is off, we must shift the dial position so that the date window is centered perfectly with the date wheel (this is achievable because the dial feet allow for a tiny bit of play - just enough for the date window to be centered).
Setting hands requires three things: perfect alignment, perfect leveling, and the correct positioning for a midnight date change. Before the hands are installed, the movement’s time is set right at midnight - right as soon as the date changes. The hour hand then gets placed on, pointed directly up to the 12 hour index, followed by the minute hand, making sure both hands are perfectly parallel with the dial as well as with each other, and that they are pointing perfectly straight to the 12 hour index. Once the two hands are set, the time is moved forward 24 hours to make sure the date changes at midnight, and that the hands are aligned perfectly with every hour index. Once those two checks are complete, the seconds hand is installed, and after making sure the seconds hand is leveled properly, hand installation is complete. If any of the checks fail, the hands must be taken off, and all the steps must be repeated.
In terms of hand-setting tools, I prefer handheld hand setting tools over traditional hand presses because I feel like I have more control with the handheld ones. I own a number of expensive hand setting tools from Bergeon and Horotec, but oddly enough, I still prefer my trusty old generic brand tool for most jobs.
Movement Testing and Regulation
Now that the hands have been installed, we set the time on all the movements and let them run for a minimum of 10 days. By having all the movements set to one time, it becomes very easy to spot faulty movements, whether it’s an issue with the power reserve, timekeeping, or something else (such as hands getting stuck against each other due to improper leveling).
After 10 days, we begin the regulation process. The Miyota 9015 movements are a pleasure to work with in terms of performance. We regulate our watches to four positions, and with the 9015, we have a +8/-8s standard for every position. Based on the feedback we’ve received, our regulation efforts have resulted in -/+2 seconds per day on the wrist. After regulation, only 1% of the several hundred movements we tested deviated outside of those specifications. In comparison, more than 15% of the Seiko NH35A movements we have tested failed our +10/-10s standards, and unfortunately, those movements that fail our tests go into the scrap pile.
A lot of people wonder if regulating these movements is even necessary. For the Miyota 9015 movements we tested for this run, only 30% of them were acceptable from the factory. The rest had to be regulated before being sent out to our customers. The main performance difference we see between the 9015 and a standard grade ETA 2824 is that a larger percentage of 2824s are regulated better from the factory. But once the 9015 is regulated, it performs amazingly well.
Casing is quick and easy, but getting dust out from underneath the crystal is what usually takes the longest during this stage. The top of the crystal is wiped clean with a microfiber cloth, and we then shine a bright light against the crystal to expose any particles underneath it. Compressed air does wonders for dislodging 95% of the dust underneath the crystal, but the remaining 5% require more precision via a clean piece of rodico, a clean cotton swab, a clean microfiber cloth, or a combination of all three.
Once the crystal is clean, the movement and metal movement holder is placed into the case. Gaskets are lubed up with silicone grease and placed into the case and movement holder, and then the caseback is screwed on with a bench tool. We have found that assembly houses tend to screw on casebacks a little too tight, which can undermine water resistance as it may pinch the caseback gaskets or put unnecessary stress on them.
Part of the casing process includes cutting the movement stems to length and installing the crowns onto the stems. The movement stems we receive all need to be cut to the exact length before the crown is screwed on. A stem cut too long will not be able to screw down all the way into the case, resulting in water leakage, and a stem cut too short will not stick out far enough for the handwinding position to be engaged.
Bezel Insert Installation
For the Contrail 12hr models, we save the bezel insert installation until the very end to ensure proper alignment. The bezel insert uses 3M tape to adhere to the watch, which is the industry standard and is much preferred to other methods such as glue (less mess, more secure).
Before the watches get packed up, we do a final inspection to check for any imperfections, such as dust on the dial, hand alignment, crown action, case scratches, etc. We also double-check the accuracy of every watch, making sure the numbers on the regulation card are reflective of the watch’s actual performance. A final wipe-down is done to make sure our customers get a squeaky-clean watch, and all the protective plastic is put on the watch to signify that the watch is ready to go.
The final step is packaging and fulfillment. Although the work is very low difficulty, this stage takes quite a bit of time. Every watch comes with its own regulation card and warranty card, and the serial number and warranty information all has to be logged in our database before the watches head out to their new owners. We individually package every single watch, and although it takes a lot of time for us to do so, there is a certain charm/romance in putting our hands on every single watch, even with something as minor as packaging.
The most rewarding feeling of the entire assembly process comes from when all of our orders are packed up and ready to go to the post office. When we reach this point, not only do we know that our customers will soon be able to enjoy their watches, but Wes and I are able to sit down, crack open a beer, and unwind for a bit - at least until the next assembly season begins.
Avalon, here we come.
Cullen Chen is the co-founder/operator at Nodus Watches. He is a self-professed Seiko-holic and watch freak as well as an avid DIYer. When he is not assembling watches, he is grilling up meat, obsessing over cars, playing guitar, and enjoying fine beverages.