Manual and self-winding watches are two different types of mechanical watches, those powered purely by the mechanics inside a watch rather than a battery.
Manual winding watches require the owner to rotate the crown to power the watch. Self-winding watches, also known as automatic watches, have a weighted rotor that automatically rotates, and powers the watch, when worn on the wrist.
Manual watches predate the automatic watch, but both still have their pros and cons. For example, since manual watches don’t need an additional rotor, they are typically much thinner, making them much more comfortable for me to wear. Automatic watches also tend to be a bit heavier.
But, I also love that I don’t need to put in any effort to wind an automatic watch. Just throw it on my wrist, and it winds itself while going about my day.
Sit tight as we explore both types in greater detail to help you pick the right one for you.
What’s the Difference Between Manual and Self-Winding Automatic Watches?
As stated before, the key difference between these two is the way they are wound. Manual watches are wound by rotating the crown, while automatic watches wind themselves when they are worn.
Neither is powered by a battery, and both will have a smooth second-hand sweep, rather than a tick-tock.
Manual watches require the wearer to wind the watch by rotating the crown. Generally, the crown needs to be wound for about 20-40 full rotations, which will keep the watch wound for a day or two.
Winding it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, and sometimes I even find the process therapeutic. It allows me to take a moment to stop and breathe, taking a break from the daily hustle and bustle. It also gives me a moment to appreciate, and bond with my watch, observing new, little details about it each time.
Manual watches also tend to be thinner. Let’s compare the thickness of two versions of one of my favorite watches, the Hamilton Khaki Field. One manual and one automatic.
- Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical: 9mm
- Hamilton Khaki Field Automatic: 10mm
Admittedly, the automatic version is still pretty thin for an automatic watch. They’re typically much thicker than their mechanical counterparts. But, even a couple of millimeters of difference greatly affects how the watches wear, and I definitely notice the difference on the wrist.
- Thinner and less bulky.
- The absence of a rotor at the back does not obstruct the visibility of the gears and balance wheel when the case back is transparent. The intricacies of the gears are every watch enthusiast’s eye candy.
- Winding the watch every day gives enthusiasts a deeper connection with their timepieces.
- Some users of manual-wind watches have found it therapeutic to wind their watches in the morning chaos.
- Winding it every morning builds a routine. Routines have been proven to improve mental health.
- They are generally more affordable than automatic watches as they do not have extra mechanisms like the automatic winding system.
On the other hand, it can become a bit monotonous at times, having to wind your watch almost every day. Grabbing your watch while late for work? The last thing you’ll want to do is waste a few minutes winding it.
Back when I worked in an office, there have been more than a few times I’ve shown up to work with the time set incorrectly, as the watch wasn’t yet wound. It can be a bit awkward when a coworker asks you the time, knowing you’re a watch guy, and you have to still pull out your phone.
There’s also the risk of overwinding a manual watch, which could permanently damage it, requiring a service.
- It can be tiresome to wind a watch every day for people who are not used to it.
- For dive watches, the seal of the crown usually wears out as the crown turns every day.
- There is a possibility of snapping the stem if you wind past the resistance when the mainspring is fully wound.
Sef-Winding Automatic Watches
Self-winding watches (more often referred to as “automatic”) have an additional weighted rotor attached to the mechanical movement. As you swing your wrist, the rotor rotates, winding the watch automatically.
Some automatic watches can also be wound manually, but not all can. You can’t overwind an automatic watch!
Since it winds on your wrist, it doesn’t need as much daily attention as a manual would. Simply give it a few shakes to get it started, throw it on your wrist, and go about your day, and it will continue winding throughout.
This makes it much more convenient for someone who plans on wearing the same watch frequently, as if you wear it every day, you’ll never need to actually wind it yourself.
Also, some automatic watches can also be wound manually, and there is no risk of overwinding these watches, thanks to their unique mechanism.
- You don’t have to worry about the watch running out of power while wearing it. The rotor continuously charges the mainspring throughout the day as you move your wrist.
- For people who prefer hefty watches on their wrist, the extra weight added by the self-winding mechanism (especially by the rotor) may be an added advantage.
- You do not have to worry about overwinding as the automatic mechanism decouples once the spring is fully wound.
- There is no possibility of overwinding the mainspring or breaking the stem as the winding mechanism detaches from the mainspring once fully wound.
On the other hand, automatic watches tend to be thicker, thanks to the addition of the weighted rotor on the movement. They also tend to be slightly heavier, and sometimes even more expensive.
With that said, there are tons of different automatic watches these days, with varying thicknesses, weights, and price points, so don’t let those factors dissuade you entirely.
- The rotor at the back conceals the interesting gears and mechanisms operating the watch.
- Automatic watches are generally thicker and heavier due to the rotor added at the back. People who prefer thin, light simplistic designs can find this off-putting.
- They are generally more expensive than manual-winding watches as they require more delicate parts for the automatic winding mechanism.
Which One Is More Reliable?
Both types are equally reliable, however, manual watches have the possibility of being overwound.
So, while both are solid choices, a self-winding watch is a bit more carefree.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Winding and Automatic Watches?
There is no difference between the two. An automatic watch is just the common name for a self-winding watch. The automatic watch winds itself when the rotor, attached to the movement, rotates when wearing the watch on your wrist.
Do Mechanical Watches Last Forever?
Both self-winding and manual watches are mechanical, so I’ll be bucketing them both into this question.
Yes, mechanical watches can last forever, if properly maintained, and regularly serviced by an experienced watchmaker.
While digital and smartwatches often use electronic components that are often beyond repair once broken, mechanical watches use a series of manufactured metal cogs and springs, which can easily be repaired, or replaced, if they were to break.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can just wear your watch for centuries, and still expect it to work perfectly, but it definitely is possible to care for a mechanical watch and pass it down for generations.
Should I Buy a Mechanical Watch?
Note: Both self-winding and manual watches are considered “mechanical”.
When deciding if a mechanical watch is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you want a watch that doesn’t look like a smartwatch or a retro digital watch?
- Do you want a watch that will last you for years and years to come?
- Do you want a watch that you can pass down to your family one day?
- Do you want a watch that can be repaired instead of replaced?
- Would you be okay with paying over $100 for a service to maintain the watch every few years?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, yes, you should consider buying a mechanical watch.
How Do Manual Winding Watches Really Work? The Nerdy Details
Both manual and self-winding watches store power in the mainspring, a long steel coil. This spring is stored inside the mainspring barrel, which has gear teeth along its circumference. The manual winding mechanism winds this mainspring via the stem.
Above the mainspring barrel is a wheel connected to the middle of the mainspring barrel called the ratchet wheel. It also has teeth and is connected to the winding pinion located on the stem via a series of gears. As the stem spins, this wheel spins in one direction, turning the mainspring in the barrel attached below it.
A piece of protruding metal called a click is attached to the ratchet wheel on one of its sides to keep it from unwinding. The click is fixed on one side, and the other free side is lodged into the space between two of the ratchet wheel’s teeth.
When the ratchet wheel is spun in the winding direction, its teeth push the ratchet out of the way and allow it to turn. The interaction between the click and the ratchet wheel’s teeth causes the clicking sound when winding.
The mainspring then tries to release the energy it has gained by unwinding, which causes the protruding click to get lodged between the ratchet wheel teeth. This happens because it cannot turn in the opposite direction, which prevents the spring from unwinding in the opposite direction of winding.
The mainspring unwinds in the same direction it was wound, rotating the mainspring barrel. This, in turn, rotates the center wheel, which holds the minute hand. The center wheel rotates the third wheel, driving the fourth wheel. The fourth wheel rotates once per minute and holds the second hand.
All these connections culminate in the escapement containing the balance wheel, pallet fork, and escape wheel. These regulate the unwinding of the mainspring, allowing it to release energy in short bursts spanning over 40 hours instead of one release of energy in a few seconds.
As the mainspring releases energy to the gear train, it loses energy. Its torque force, which drives the gears, becomes weaker. This causes the watch to become more and more inaccurate as the mainspring unwinds.
This prompts the use of torque control mechanisms, especially in high-end watches. Such mechanisms include the fusée and chain mechanisms.
The fusée is a cone-shaped gear with a chain wrapped around it connected to the mainspring barrel. The center wheel is no longer directly connected to the mainspring barrel but through the fusée and chain mechanism instead.
The mainspring produces maximum torque when near full wind and minimum torque when almost fully unwound (the mainspring does not fully unwind in the barrel).
When the mainspring is at full wind, the chain is attached to the fusée at the top where the cone shape is smallest. It requires a lot of torque force from the mainspring to move the fusée. As the torque from the mainspring reduces, the chain shifts downward where minimal force is required to move the fuseé.
The up-and-down movement of the chain to compensate for torque levels produced by the mainspring makes the watch isochronous, meaning beats occur at regular intervals.
How Do You Wind a Mechanical Watch?
Now that you know what happens when you wind your watch, let us look at how to complete the winding process.
- Ensure the crown is pushed into the case. If it is a dive watch/water resistant, you may need to unscrew it first. Do this by turning the crown counterclockwise until it pops out.
- Continue winding until the second-hand starts moving. You should hear some clicks as you wind if it is winding properly.
- Keep going for another 10-30 revolutions, depending on the watch’s power reserve, until you start to feel resistance from the crown. This means the mainspring is fully wound. Winding past this resistance may break the stem inside the movement.
- All done! If it is a screw-down crown, apply inward pressure to the crown and turn it in a clockwise direction.
How Do Self-Winding Watches Really Work?
Automatic-winding watches work similarly to manual-winding watches with only one difference; automatic-winding watches have a rotor.
This rotor is disc-shaped and is heavy in relation to other watch parts. It is mounted behind the watch and pivoted at the center. When one moves their wrist, the rotor oscillates back and forth with the movement.
This oscillation is transferred to the mainspring through a series of gears, much like manual-winding watches.
Some self-winding watches have both automatic and manual mechanisms for winding.
Winding an Automatic Watch
For a purely automatic watch, hold the watch with the dial facing up or down and shake it side to side or in a horizontal circular motion till the second hand starts to move.
At this point, you can either wear the watch and wind it through your wrist’s movement as you carry on with your activities or continue shaking for another 30-40 seconds to fully wind the mainspring.
For self-winding watches with the manual-winding mechanism, one could opt to hand wind the watch by using the crown to start a dead watch. When winding using the manual winding mechanism, you will not feel any resistance when the mainspring is fully wound as the mainspring will decouple from the mechanism.
This is pertinent in the design as the rotor winds the mainspring all day, so it could be destroyed if it was not decoupled.
It is recommended to use the manual-winding mechanism only once in a while. It was not designed for this purpose, so it has smaller and more delicate gears, which could wear out more easily. A good example is the ETA28xx family, whose winding system is prone to wear out when used often. This is partly due to the manual winding system also winding the automatic system causing lots of stress on the mechanism.
Unlike manual-winding watches, the rotor keeps the mainspring at near maximum wind where torque is maximum. This keeps the torque supplied to the gear trains constant, making automatic-winding watches more accurate than manual ones without needing extra mechanisms.
Should I Wind My Watch When It’s Not in Use?
There are many opposing opinions on this. Some say leaving the watch unwound would make the oils in the movement dry up, while others believe that leaving the watch running for long without using it causes unnecessary wear of gears.
Two watchmakers interviewed by Fratello Watches were of the opinion that it is better to leave your watch unwound if not in use.
This is because it would be much easier and cheaper to relubricate a watch with dried oils than with many worn-out parts.
Furthermore, oils used these days are synthetic and will not dry up easily, unlike those used in the ’60s. If the watch is stored in a cold place and the oils happen to dry up, they will probably revert to their normal state when the watch begins to work again at normal temperature.
Should I Buy a Watch Winder for My Self-Winding Watches?
Watch winders are generally an unnecessary accessory as watches do not need to be wound all the time, as we have seen above.
For a watch collector with many watches, buying watch winders for all automatic watches in the collection could be unnecessarily expensive. Many watch winders would also take up lots of space.
However, if shaking your watch every morning is tedious, you should consider buying a watch winder for the automatic timepiece you will be wearing the next day.
It is important to note that watch winders only work for self-winding watches.
Manual winding watches are powered up by turning the crown to tighten the mainspring. Self-winding watches wind their mainspring automatically via a rotor that swings with the effect of gravity and the wrist’s movement.
If you prefer lightweight watches and are fine with winding the watch manually at least once daily, a manual-winding watch is a perfect match for you. If you like to feel the weight of a watch on your wrist and not worry about winding it during the day, you should definitely go for an automatic winding watch.