Dial restoration of ARSA D-H German military watch

Restoring the dial after an unsuccessful repair

A real German soldier’s watch from the WWII is a dream of any kid. This original wrist watch has an original official signature ‘D H’ (Deutsches Heer).

The victim of “the Painter”

Unfortunately, this watch was literally painted over the original dial. 

Somehow, it got into the wrong hands of a ‘soviet watchmaker’, but he really didn’t have a particular talent and he did not put enough effort into it, check this out…

The digits can hardly be seen under the wrinkly plastic glass and the dial is completely ruined by the watchmaker.

Hoping our best, we open the dial, under which we find the face of the sick watch. The watches’ worst enemy is the master who repaired the watch. The owner of the watch can hit it, scratch the surface, pop the string and even wear out the strap, all of that is fully repairable. But only the ‘master’ is the one who can put his hand inside the watch and make even more mess and worse mistakes. Here’s an example…

The dial is covered in terrible tar. The letters are on the sides and are smudged with it.

Instead of the letters there are just white plops, and the hands are covered with the thick paint too. A disgusting shine comes from the rough wrinkly polish.

The master was most likely attempting to get rid of the radioactive paint, scratched the numbers off and trying to express his ‘inner artist’ began to draw a new set of numbers instead. The surface is painted with dark black and covered with a thick layer of tar, there’s only a gap left for the seconds disk. There’s a yellow-ish polish laid on top of the numbers.

In this case there are two ways of fixing it:

  1. Typographical Restoration: getting rid of all the paint until you see just the metal.
  2. Manual Restoration: trying to get rid of it layer by layer until eventually you get the original colour of it. You don’t know what result you’re going to get.

Anyway, let’s start with the way number 2. And if we can’t do it at all, we’ll go for number 1. If we get rid of it all layer by layer, we can get to the original surface. But we’ll see how it goes, and maybe try and make it look better with other methods.

Step 1: Cleaning

For every different dial, you can pick a special kind of solvent. When we tried to clean the face with gasoline, kerosene, and alcohol, there was still no change… Nail polish remover started cleaning off the yellow polish, so this liquid can dissolve it.

The nail polish remover is absorbed by the tar, and it soon starts to ease up.

We need to put a piece of cotton soaked in nail polish remover onto the dial, to let the tar dissolve.

The polish is disappearing quickly. The black tar is covered in the remover, soon we can get rid of it.

The tar starts coming off, but the white paint doesn’t let go of the dial that quickly, so far it only becomes softer. We can see the damage around the letters, as of now it looks even worse…

We put another wet cotton cover for it, and leave it for a couple of hours.

After doing that a few times, we were finally able to get the paint off with a thin stick, until all of it is gone. Now we can definitely see the damage, especially around the numbers where the surface is all scratched.

Now that we have cleaned it as much as possible, the first step is complete. For now we have also got rid of the horrible glass (we’ll pick another one) and swapped the winding crown for a newer one.

Step 2: Drawing

After cleaning, the next step is drawing the details. Now we need to re-draw the digits where and how they originally appeared on the dial.

We put the new phosphor onto the numbers and onto the hands, instead of the radioactive material that was there before.

The numbers look inflated on the surface of the dial, which makes them stand out from all the damage and scratches. Now looking at the watch makes one feel much nicer, especially considering what they were like before. And even if that is not perfect yet, the digits distract from the scratches.

Next we need to disguise the damages around the numbers. For this we use a wooden stick and put the black paint on with little dots. Don’t scrub it on smoothly, because otherwise you’d get the effect of that disgusting shining, like there was before. These tiny dots aren’t straight, same as the surface, so it’s not really seen.

                                       We carefully disguise the large scratches using black paint.

Finished!

How hard is it to make something look brand new? Often something new may look alarming. We need to leave wear around the watch for people to notice how old the watch may be.

The human eye mostly pays attention to the shape, and is able to ignore small imperfections. On closeup photos you can see lots of small scratches, but when the glass is on, and the watch is on one’s wrist, everything looks old and glorious. This is what it’s actually meant to look like as a watch from the 1940’s.

                                     The dial is polished and chrome plated, and has see through glass on it.

                            The movement is wonderful and looks brand new, it even shines beautifully!

                                                 It works perfectly after we swapped out the spring.

                                             And, of course, there’s a “D-H” sign on the back.

WARNING: before you try the following technique yourself, try having a go on any other spoiled dials. This type of restoration will certainly work not for all dials, it works on the ones that were made using the method of photo-galvanic blackening on a silver layer.  For 99% of other dials, it wouldn’t work, and the nail polish remover will get rid of the original layer of colour as well. Experiments on such dials are dangerous, so just try not to spoil the watch if you don’t have the appropriate skills or experience.