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Project in Process: Fordite & Flame-Blued Steel Dials


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On 10/2/2020 at 2:32 PM, dpn said:

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a custom dial project. I’m still not ready to show my first production examples, but the project has gotten to the point where I’m comfortable sharing my progress. I’ve been documenting this process, and am committed to sharing my process notes. I believe in open source information, and I’ve benefited immensely in watches (and in life generally) from the wisdom and experience of other people who have been willing to share what they know with me. My hope is that by sharing my process notes, I might be able to encourage other folks to take a risk and try to make something cool. I’ve never attempted anything like this, and even if this project is ultimately unsuccessful it has been a ton of fun.

I'm sharing my progress and process notes on this forum because folks here have been incredibly friendly and patient with me. If you have any questions about my notes, please feel free to let me know and I'll try to explain things better. I'm happy to answer any questions, and I'll be sharing more photos as I can. I've received a number of comments from people I've been corresponding with that essentially conclude that "this is too hard to pull off". Bur for the serendipity of finding a source of half-height Seiko dials and having free access to an incredibly expensive precision saw, I would have agreed. If anyone has suggestions or concerns that I'm missing something key, please let me know.

Background: Seiko & ETA 6498 Custom Watches

My project started with customizing my own Seiko watches, and with assembling several custom ETA 6498 watches using available parts from Chinese sellers on eBay. I greatly enjoyed manufacturing my own ETA 6498-1 based “marine watch” using high quality components, and produced a watch that is nearly equal to the Stowa Marine Original I wanted but couldn’t afford. I could have saved more money using lower-quality components, but instead assembled a watch using high quality components (heat-blued hands, an especially nice 41mm case with a sapphire crystal, an elabore-grade ETA 6498-1, etc.) to build a final product that was high quality but still significantly less expensive than the Stowa.

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Here's my 6498-based "Marine Watch"

On the Seiko side of the house, I’ve built a couple of custom Seiko watches using some of the really amazing dial and hand combinations available from lots of internet sellers. (My favorite seller is called Lucius Atelier.) In browsing the offerings of several different Seiko part dealers, I saw that some suppliers sold higher-end dials made out of meteorite, damascus steel, carbon fiber, and other neat things.

Knowing how much I enjoyed building my ETA 6498 watch, knowing how many people enjoy modifying their Seiko watches, and being generally fascinated by exotic dial materials, I realized that it might be possible to design my own watch dials. I enjoyed reading many articles on restoring dials using decals, and thought a lot about using electrolytic-etching or laser-cutting to customize brass dials.

It was at this point that I stumbled across fordite and fell in love ...

Fordite

Several months ago, I ran across a limited series of very expensive TAG Heuer watches that featured unique dials made out of “fordite”. There's no way I'll ever be able to afford once of those £5,500.00 watches, but I couldn't get the idea of working with fordite out of my head.

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(Here are some quick shots of my first fordite samples, to give folks an idea of what it looks like in unpolished slab form.)

Fordite is also known as “Detroit Agate,” and it’s actual industrial waste. Back when car manufacturers used to spray paint cars by hand, they generated a lot of overspray. This overspray accumulated over the years, and hundreds of layers of overspray built up into large chunks of waste material. This stuff was repeatedly heat cured at the same time the painted cars were heat cured, and the resulting chunks of waste are durable and nice to work with. I don’t know the first time it was discovered that cutting open the waste chunks revealed beautiful and psychedelic patterns of paint, but for some years jewelers have been using lapidary techniques to create bizarre and fun jewelry with fordite. One of the things that I find particularly fascinating about this material is that it’s possible to source fordite from specific assembly lines. Consequently, one can obtain fordite in Jeep, Corvette, Cadillac, Peterbilt, and other colors. I’ve even obtained some fordite from the “Cadillac Ranch” in the Mojave Desert. It’s much softer and more fragile than “normal” fordite, but it also has a wider variety of colors and textures. In order to work with this specific soft fordite, I'm going to need to stabilize it using some cool lapidary techniques.

Heat-Blued Steel

I have been enchanted by heat-blued steel watch components for a really long time. I started researching how I might myself heat-blue steel with an eye towards designing and selling heat-blued steel watch hands compatible with Seikos and other watches. For quite a few reasons, this isn’t feasible (yet?), but I’ve enjoyed polishing and bluing steel pocket watch hands. As my dial project progressed, I realized that it wasn’t practical for me to add applied hour indices, and there are some significant obstacles to using film-free decals on the dials I'm making. I realized that some manufacturers of exotic-dialed watches got around the problem by attaching a short chapter ring directly to the watch dial. This solution really appealed to me, so I set about designing a chapter ring that could be cut out of very thin (0.01” or 0.254 mm) high carbon steel, polished, and then glued to the dial face without risk of fouling any of the watch hands.

I worked with an engineer on Fiverr, who converted my really rough sketch of a chapter ring design into a DXF file.  My first 20 carbon steel chapter rings are currently in production at a laser-cutting facility. I don't need to share photos of the steel I've heat blued here to prove that it's a work in progress. Temperature control is critical, and I'm going to be switching from a propane camp stove to a precision digitally-controlled laboratory grade Cole-Parmer StableTemp hot plate to get consistent, high-quality results. I know that large manufacturers, including Glashütte Original, are doing essentially the same thing: In this Glashütte Original watch assembly video, one can see them using a $50 digital soldering-station with a brass attachment to blue screws. I'd go that route myself, but my chapter rings are a lot larger and so I want a larger heating area with better temperature control. I'll specifically be using a 1" thick 4" x 4" block of aluminum mounted on the hot plate's ceramic heating element to ensure uniform heat distribution.

Chapter-Ring-Sketch.thumb.JPG.1f79dd392465a8e5a1a25ffcc88cf97e.JPG Chapter-Ring-DWG.JPG.b8f4dbcbd52dcad732885cdfe30a26a0.JPG ZA-Chapter_Ring_Sample.thumb.jpeg.59150c348391c62490569fb2c95d1d4a.jpeg
Chapter ring, from concept sketch to technical drawing to first prototype. Obviously, I'm going to need to do a lot of polishing before I re-blue these for installation!

[Continued ...]

had to look at this again-you're probably way ahead on this now but hey, I think this chap ring lo9oks cool as is! 🙂

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Please forgive the poor quality snapshot, but it all came together. I am over the moon! Here's my first completed fordite-dialed watch: I'll provide a more complete write up, better ph

So, I've debated sharing the proof of concept picture below, as it's with an imperfect fordite dial slice and the fordite itself hadn't been polished. It's not even a particularly compelling cut of fo

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a custom dial project. I’m still not ready to show my first production examples, but the project has gotten to the point where I’m comfortable sharing my

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On 10/16/2020 at 8:09 AM, Tudor said:

This is coming along nicely!

i’ve been following this and finally I can contribute. 
 

If you want to get a “black” polish on the index ring, you need a large, lose and flappy wheel with very fine rouge. A small Dremel wheel is going to produce swirl marks that’ll drive you insane. Even on the sides of a watch case, I use a 6” wheel, not a 1” wheel. 

you are soooo right. the gooey swirl marks have become the bane of my existence and can drive you insane, trying to get rid of them. get the largest fluffiest (is that a word?)muslin or cotton wheel, use light pressure and turn rpm down seems to work alot better but polishing can still be a challenge. especially when people make it look so easy.

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On 11/13/2020 at 5:03 PM, dpn said:

@MechanicMike: Right now, I'm using a propane camp stove with a 6" x 6" x 1" block of aluminum to help with heat evenness.

Another shot: I'm working on improving my watch photography too!

 

 

Zzyzx_Atelier_SRPE69_Fordite.jpg

holee smokes thats nice!

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On 11/17/2020 at 7:25 PM, MechanicMike said:

aluminum. hmmmm. ever try brass or brass chips in a chip tray? 

Yeah, I've tried a few things: brass scarf, powdered marble, brass plates, etc. If I've learned anything about bluing steel, is that what works well for one person won't necessarily work for another person. I'm able to consistently and cleanly blue hands, but the much larger surface area of the chapter ring is a significantly greater challenge.

If anyone wants to learn how to blue hands or screws, the most foolproof and consistent method I'd recommend would be to use an inexpensive (<$100) precision-controlled digital soldering station with some sort of brass heating platform attached. This is what G.O. does, and it really does look like the sweet spot in terms of repeatability, consistency, and price.

For one-off bluing of a couple of screws or the occasional hand set, any of the time-tested methods should work fine with significant practice.

\\\

Thanks for the compliments @MechanicMike! 

\\\

Please forgive the poor quality of these snapshots, but here are a couple more examples. (Along with everything else, I'm really working to improve my wristwatch photography. It pains me to share quick snapshots now, but it's a ton of work to produce really high quality photographs. I'll be writing up a technique/walkthrough for taking high quality wristwatch photos and sharing it with the group when things calm down. With luck, it'll help folks take better picture of their watches ... and maybe make a little more money on their eBay sales.)

This finished watch is an SNKK27 with a dial that really reminds me of a topographic map.

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This dial sitting by itself is way more vivid and psychedic, and I'll be putting it into a watch today.

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Here's a heartbreaking (to me anyway) image showing just how delicate and difficult this stuff is to work with. I absolutely loved the crazy pattern and colors in this dial, and it was likely to be my "keeper" fordite dial to commemorate this project. It reminded me of a psychotic duck. This dial made it almost all the way through my manufacturing process, surviving being cut with my saw, trimmed to fit the dial, and being ground/polished down through 400, 800, 1500, and 2000-grit sandpaper. On its final polishing step (wet 3000-grit sandpaper), I overpolished this dial and exposed the brass underneath the fordite layer. This is most visible at around noon in the picture below. Dang. Adding insult to injury, the fordite chipped when I drilled its central hole. This was around 8 hours of work down the drain.

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I can definitely say that I've figured out a LOT of ways of screwing up the manufacturing process for these dials. And I'm confident in saying that I'll continue finding new ways to screw it up. Here's a fun one that took me by surprise. I was working with a fordite section that wasn't completely flat out of the saw. I didn't think that this was a big deal, as it ranged from 0.5mm at its thin end to 0.75mm at its thick end. It turned into a big deal when I made two additional mistakes: 1) I forgot to rough up the brass dial blank before applying epoxy; and 2) I didn't weigh down the fordite section enough while the epoxy was curing. The uncured epoxy allowed the fordite section to slip off of the dial while curing, leading to a very thin and fragile fordite layer that was securely epoxied to half of a dial blank. Neither were salvageable.

I have found some tricks that have improved the process too. I had been using hot glue to hold my fordite cores to the "wafer chuck" on the Buehler Isomet during cutting. This worked okay, but the hot glue failed after 3-4 cuts, which resulted in a lot of wasted time and miscut fordite sections. The better solution has turned out to be using epoxy to glue a LEGO piece to the end of the fordite cores, and then using a vise chuck to hold the LEGO piece during cutting. This works awesome. I've also figured out that an ideal fordite section is almost exactly the same width (0.5mm) as the blade I'm using to cut it. This has made eyeballing the width of my cuts much easier, and has significantly improved the consistency of my cutting.

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Cutting has gotten MUCH better having switched to a 5" blade and using LEGO pieces with a different chuck.

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This low-tech kludge is working AWESOME.

I did find a good source of brightly colored hands of different designs, which I'll be tapping into if I continue building fully-assembled and upgraded Seiko watches. I'd honestly rather just be making dials.

I'm learning that there are really big differences between different types of fordite. The more subtle (whites/blacks/reds/silvers/blues) fordite is from an old Jeep assembly line. The wild psychedelic stuff is from the old Mustang assembly line. The materials feel different to work too. Also, I've discovered that some rough slabs of fordite have big bubbles or inclusions in them. One $50 rough slab I bought was so riddled with inclusions that it produced a grand total of one usable fordite section.

Here's an example of some of the psychedelic colors and patterns I can get out of "Mustang" fordite:

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I'm still working frantically to get my first 10 dials completed. I had a major breakthrough in that I received my order of 200 half-height (0.2mm) blank brass Seiko/NH35/NH36 dials from the Chinese factory yesterday. I had stalled out because I had worked my way through my first 12 half-height dial blanks and was completely out. Ordering directly from a Chinese factory was a lot less painful than I had been lead to expect, but I think I got lucky and don't have QC problems because of the simplicity of the parts I had ordered. If I have time, I'll share some of my notes and experiences about what it has been like for me to work with an Alibaba manufacturer to build custom parts.

I'm currently reaching out to additional Chinese suppliers to try to see if designing and manufacturing a run of *carbon steel* Seiko-compatible handsets is feasible. A lot more can go wrong there, and that's going to be a much longer-term project. Ideally, I'll be able to design hands that are inexpensive to manufacture, come ready-to-blue, and can accommodate lume (which I'd be applying myself).

Edited by dpn
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Use an endmil rather than a drill bit. Still go slower than normal for the diameter. Normal would be quite fast (around 1000 rpm I guess) but I’d probably go at 200 or so to avoid heat buildup. 

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10 hours ago, dpn said:

Yeah, I've tried a few things: brass scarf, powdered marble, brass plates, etc.

a few new ones I'll have to try! including the soldering station too. keep up the good work it's fascinating. nothing I've seen before in my short time as a hobbyist. and the Lego connection...!

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1 hour ago, Tudor said:

Use an endmil rather than a drill bit. Still go slower than normal for the diameter. Normal would be quite fast (around 1000 rpm I guess) but I’d probably go at 200 or so to avoid heat buildup. 

or a center drill maybe? https://www.mcmaster.com/carbide-center-drills/

this is just an expensive carbide example I pulled up. but you can buy these anywhere and of a myriad of metals and sizes. a center cutting endmill too would work. Andy's idea of a pilot drill with tape on the opposite side is good too. as a machinist i have used all of these methods and still do. 

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I wouldn’t go with a center drill. 

They are stiffer, but still have an included angle point, which pulls outward as it cuts (That’s what raises the burr on a chunk of metal)

The endmil is flat on the end, (well, a square end one is anyway) and won’t raise the burr as much (and therefore shouldn’t be as inclined to chip) as it bores. 

Also interesting reading (if you can find it) is the proper way to grind drills for various materials. But I don’t think a drill is the right choice here. 

Finally, dressing the center hole with a counter sink (by hand) may help reduce the risk of chipping. 

More finally, if doing a lot, make a full support jig. Top and bottom plate with finished size holes so the paint is fully supported at the point of boring. 

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Re drilling:

I'm using a hand pin vise with a very, very small drill bit. I go very slowly. Once I have a pilot hole drilled, a carefully and gradually expand the hole using a very small round diamond file.

There's nothing better than these, I'm convinced, since I'm only drilling through a 0.2mm-thick fordite veneer. 😉

Thanks all for the suggestions though!

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Quick snapshot of a vibrant-to-the-point-of-garish completed watch. I'm likely to keep this one. Again, forgive the photo quality -- I've got a bunch of stuff lined up to shoot better this weekend.

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On 11/19/2020 at 12:29 PM, dpn said:

different types of fordite.

say, what's the consistency of this fordite? is it like a hard eraser? I'm still trying to remember where I've come in contact with the stuff.  it was a long time ago I remember that...

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25 minutes ago, MechanicMike said:

say, what's the consistency of this fordite? is it like a hard eraser? I'm still trying to remember where I've come in contact with the stuff.  it was a long time ago I remember that...

It's hard to describe, as it's basically fossilized paint. It's really great to work this -- I can't really compare it to anything else as I've never worked with anything else -- but it's easy to cut, easy to grind/polish, and holds together really well even in very thin (0.5mm) slices. At my final working thickness, it feels like paper -- it bends and has some elasticity, but can fracture along the paint lines.

DM me your name and mailing address, and I'll send you a scrap of it to check out.

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On 11/19/2020 at 6:29 PM, dpn said:

One $50 rough slab I bought was so riddled with inclusions that it produced a grand total of one usable fordite section.

Could you inject tinted clear acrylic into the inclusions, or fill with some other material. This might allow you to then slice it without loss of structure. 

Edited by AndyHull
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16 hours ago, AndyHull said:

Could you inject tinted clear acrylic into the inclusions, or fill with some other material. This might allow you to then slice it without loss of structure. 

That's a good idea. I'll think about it. 

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You're going to need the scraps to make the three sub dials on your 7750 powered chronograph version.

Same Fordite piece, but with the sub dials cut from another area, and inlaid into the original dial.

That would be cool...

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On 11/22/2020 at 12:14 PM, MechanicMike said:

Those look like an SKX hand set a little bit. I forgot to ask-are they or the indices lumed? if not do you plan on it in the future?

I use stock hands or aftermarket hands, depending on what I think looks good. I tend to use stock hands (with their awesome lumibrite) more, but sometimes I switch it up. I'd like to say that this is always an intentional choice, but sometimes I fumble the hand installation and break a factory hand. I've gotten way better at installing watch hands, but I'm still not perfect. I am considering purchasing a Horotec Watch Tool Hand Press after a particularly painful and expensive loss of a handset from a watch I really liked. I'll be posting separately on this.

No plans for indices, lumed or unlumed, in the future ... other than the blued chapter rings I'm still working on. I need to recover my initial costs before buying the equipment I need to ensure a consistent blue, so the chapter rings are still paused.

9 hours ago, Tudor said:

You're going to need the scraps to make the three sub dials on your 7750 powered chronograph version.

Same Fordite piece, but with the sub dials cut from another area, and inlaid into the original dial.

That would be cool...

That'd be cool, but no way in heck I'm capable of that. I'll leave that to the pros. 😉 For whatever reason, I've never owned or desired to own a chronograph. 

I spent a few hours photographing the watches I've built to date instead of grinding fordite dials over the weekend. I'd like to write a guide for watch photography for folks ... but I've still got a ton to learn.

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