Hacking and Handwinding Watches and Why You Don’t Need Them

A few features that loosely get thrown around a lot in mechanical watch reviews and videos are “hacking” and “hand-winding”. But what exactly are these features on a watch and do you need them?

What is Hacking When it Comes to Watches?

Watch hacking is a feature that stops the watch’s second hand completely when pulling out the crown to set the time. Hand-winding is the ability to manually power your mechanical watch’s movement by turning the crown, usually clockwise, which tightens the springs and allows your mechanical watch to run for longer. For some mechanical watches, this is the only way to power the movement.

Now that you know what these terms mean, let’s dive a little deeper.

Why You Don’t Need a Hacking Watch

When you first think about it, this might seem like a really awesome feature. It’ll help you set the time more accurately since you can wait until the second hand lines up with the exact second on the atomic clock. The problem is, mechanical watches will lose that accuracy by the end of the day.

By the end of the day, most mechanical watches, even expensive Rolex watches will be off by a few seconds. Why is that? Well, since these watches are mechanical, there are a lot of variables of the watch movement that can cause slight variances in timekeeping.

Some of the most accurate mechanical watches in the world, ones that are Chronometer Certified, only need to be accurate to +6/-4 seconds per day. This means, after 24 hours, they can either be 6 seconds ahead or 4 seconds behind and still pass this certification and be considered among the most accurate mechanical watches in the world. All this extra time you spent using your watch’s hacking feature to perfectly line up the seconds to the atomic clock will go to waste after just a single day. Not to mention, if you wear the same watch for an entire month in a row, this inaccuracy starts to build up, and get worse and worse each day you wear it. A watch running +6 seconds ahead per day will be about 180 seconds ahead per day, by the end of the month. Now, I’m no math wizard, but that’s about 3 minutes.

Don’t forget, we’re speaking about some of the most accurate watches in the world, here. Some more affordable timepieces will have even worse accuracy and will be off by an even larger amount by the end of the day! 

Now, I’m not saying having a hacking watch is pointless. Sure, it makes your life a little easier when setting the time, but the additional feature will usually be reflected in the price. Not all watches have hacked. Luckily, there are some affordable watches with hacking and handwinding that I love, such as the Orient Ray and Orient Mako II, but it’s not common to see in watches this affordable.

So, let’s say your watch doesn’t have hacking, how do you set the time without it?

Set the time on Your Non-Hacking Watch With This Simple Trick

Your watch doesn’t have hacking… Now what? Well, first of all, don’t be alarmed. Many mechanical watches don’t, and it’s not a very big deal. If you need a watch to be precisely accurate down to the second, you’re better off with a quartz movement.

Read more about Quartz vs Mechanical watches here.

Many mechanical watch owners just set the watch to the closest minute. Your watch will never be more than 30 seconds off when you set it this way.

Some mechanical watch movements have a trick that lets you hack the time anyway.

This trick doesn’t work on all movements, so your experience may vary. But the movement most commonly associated with this trick is the workhorse Seiko 7S26 featured in many entry-level Seiko models like Seiko 5s and the Seiko SKX. It was even formerly mentioned in the Seiko 7S26 Manual.

Anyway, the trick is called “back-hacking”. Here’s how to back-hack your mechanical watch:

How to Back-Hack Your Mechanical Watch

  1. Pull the crown out to the position allowing you to adjust the time. This is usually the last click out. Make sure you’re not on the position that adjusts the day or date wheels if your watch has one. 
  2. Turn the crown ever so slowly counterclockwise (toward you) in a series of many little micro-adjustments. Careful precision and small adjustments of the crown are required to back-hack. If you go too fast, it won’t work.
  3. The second hand should have now frozen. If not, keep repeating step 2, slowly pulling the crown toward you again and again repeatedly until the second hand stops.
  4. Congratulations! You back-hacked your watch. Now you can set your time precisely, down to the second. 

What is Handwinding in a Mechanical Watch?

The hand-winding feature of a mechanical watch is the ability to power the watch by rotating the crown, usually counter-clockwise. There are also a few models of hand wound watches that require a winding key, but those are becoming less and less common.

Manual Hand Wound vs Automatic watches

Like many features when it comes to watches, manual hand wound watches and automatic watches both have their pros and cons when comparing the two. Let’s take a look at either.

Benefits of Having an Automatic Watch

Automatic, or self-winding watches, are much more convenient. They have a weighted rotor attached to the movement that automatically spins and powers the watch movement as you move your wrist. This eliminates the need to have to manually wind your watch altogether, even though some watches have both automatic and hand winding capabilities.

Many people prefer automatics since you can just slap them on and not have to remember to hand wind your wristwatch to keep it powered. I also love the feeling of knowing it’s my own motion and kinetic energy that powers my watch. It gives me a greater feeling of connection with my wristwatch, but I’m clearly a bit geekier than most when it comes to this sort of stuff. 🙂

Because of the convenience of an automatic, there’s a much greater variety of automatic watches on the market than those that are strictly hand winding. An automatic watch does not come without its downsides, though.

Downsides of Owning an Automatic Watch

For one, the rotor in an automatic watch is intentionally weighted so that it shifts from side to side when you wear it. The shifting of this weight then winds the balance wheel, powering the watch. This rotor, however, usually adds both bulk and weight to your watch when compared to watches of the hand wind variety.

In addition, if you have a watch with a see-through case back, the rotor can obstruct the view of your movement, making it harder to see. Some automatic watches don’t have a see-through case back at all!

The Benefits of a Hand-Winding Watch

Hand wound or manual wind watches, as they’re sometimes called, don’t have the addition of a weighted rotor, as automatic watches do. Without the necessity of a weighted rotor like an automatic watch, it’s possible to fit the movement in a smaller case. Because of this, hand-winding watches can be made smaller and thinner than their automatic counterparts.

Another upside is that some prefer the process of hand winding a watch as opposed to an automatic that automatically winds the movement for you. Some even call the process therapeutic!

The Downsides

While some love the process of winding a watch, others may find it tedious. It’s not very time consuming, it’ll take a minute at most, but it’s just an extra step you’d have to preform when throwing your watch on.

A small downside is the constant turning of the crown to wind the watch can cause the seal of the crown to wear down prematurely. It’s possible this will affect the water resistance rating of the watch. This will make it more prone to water damage and less fit for swimming or diving. Don’t fret, however, as a skilled watchmaker can fix this when servicing your watch.

Read more about watch servicing here.

How to Hand Wind An Automatic Watch

As stated before, there are some automatic watches that also have handwinding features. There are two ways to hand wind an automatic watch that has both.

  1. Hold the watch in front of you, one finger on the crystal and the other on the case back. Shake the case side to side for 30 seconds. This isn’t typically what we refer to when using the term “hand-winding”, but it’s a good way to give your automatic watch a kick start whether or not it has manual winding features.
  2. If your watch does, in fact, have manual winding features, simply pull the crown out, unscrewing if necessary such as on a dive watch.  Usually, the crown needs to be in the most immediate position, closest to the case, as you turn it clockwise slowly. If your watch was previously not running, count 40 rotations to fully wind your watch. Just a few rotations should be enough to give it some juice if you plan on wearing your automatic right after. 

Is Handwinding a Useful Feature on Watches?

While I finding hacking less important, handwinding, on the other hand, is an awesome feature to have on any watch. You have the benefit of being able to power your watch to its maximum power reserve (usually about ~40 hours, depending on the watch) before putting it down for the night. When you pick it up the next morning or even day after, it should still be running, without you having to set the time all over again.

Can You Overwind a Handwinding Watch?

A very common question among owners of manually wound watches if it’s possible to overwind them. The short answer is yes, depending on how the watch is made.

Many older mechanical watches with older movements, and “newer” watches, usually affordable from China with movements that are built like older movements, can be overwound. As a cost-cutting measure, these cheaper watches usually don’t have a limiter that signifies when your mainspring is at its power reserve and shouldn’t be wound anymore. This means you can overwind a watch without even knowing if you’re not careful.

A quick tip is to count the amount of times you rotate the crown, so you don’t overwind your watch. Usually, about 40 full rotations will bring your watch to its maximum power reserve, or one rotation per hour of power.

Most automatic watches that also have manual hand winding capabilities cannot be over wound. This is because their winding system isn’t attached to the mainspring, so you’ll just keep winding infinitely, without ever harming it.

Most other modern watches have a handwinding limiter that will stop you from overwinding your watch, however, it’s technically possible to push past this limit with enough force, and break the watch. It’s usually a very noticeable feeling when you’ve reached the limit, it’ll take much more force to wind the watch any further. Do NOT try to push past this limit, or you can permanently damage your watch.

Are Manual Wind Watches More Reliable Than Automatic?

Most modern watches are built with durability and reliability in mind. A newer, more updated automatic watch might be more reliable and accurate than an older manual wind watch, simply because some parts and lubrication in an older watch movement degrade slowly over time. Aside from the possibility of a manually wound watch’s crown seal wearing down a bit faster, a handwinding watch compared to an automatic watch of the otherwise same exact type and build quality will have exactly the same reliability and accuracy.

Are They Worth It?

While most modern luxury wristwatch will likely have all of these features, not all do. Especially when it comes to affordable mechanical watches, hacking and handwinding are features that aren’t all that uncommon. It’s why I love affordable watches like the Orient Ray II that have both, so much.

I wouldn’t overlook a watch just because it didn’t have a hacking feature, but depending on the price point, a watch without the ability to hand wind would probably get a pass from me at this point in my collection. 

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