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My Seiko SNK Po-mo

Breaking a perfectly good watch, hoping to make a better one

I don’t scuba, or pilot a plane, or skipper a ship.

That being so, "tool watches" (as watch enthusiasts call them) such as true divers’, aviators’ or sailors’ watches would be lost on me -- or at least merely a bit of fantasy on my part. That’s not to say their core features aren’t useful to me, but being waterproof doesn’t mean I need a watch to withstand diving to great depths, just as being easy-to-read in the dark doesn’t mean I need NATO standard radioactive promethium coated minute hands. Or the associated price.

But if I could be presumptuous for a moment, I’d add a new tool watch category -- the "parent watch". The requirements are many but not too demanding; it has be splash proof, to be readable all through the night to separate "go back to bed" from "we’ll get up soon". It should be comfortable enough to wear 24 hours-a-day and to be discrete enough that playing with your kids doesn’t risk accidentally leaving them with the imprint of a 45mm gnarled bezel on their heads. Oh, and it should be cheap enough to not cause panic attacks when it becomes splattered in porridge.

So I made one. But how did I get here?

The luminous dial and hands start with an astonishing brightness, but within minutes settle down to a readable glow for the whole night.

The background #

I’m one of those people that was drawn into the world of mechanical watches because I was interested in the Apple watch. Wait, what?

Let me explain.

Before this moment, I’d worn a Swatch chrono on my wrist for over a decade and never even bothered to ask what the buttons did. But the Apple watch was launched with much referential talk of "horology", "complications" and "milanese bands" that was hard to ignore. It’s almost as though Apple wanted not just nerds like me, but Omega Speedmaster owners to take their little touch-screen seriously. Which of course, Apple did. In any case, all that romantic talk of precision and craft sparked my need to find out more about this arcane world.

To be honest, I am neither rich, nor insane, so Swiss classics are out of my budget. So if you’re looking for a mechanical automatic watch and happen to also be a cheapskate, you have two routes. You either buy a Chinese "homage" or you look at a Seiko.

To cut a long story short, I learned of the Seiko "modding" sub-culture where people swap out watch components to make new twists on existing designs. It appealed on a number of levels; the watches that served as the donor were well-regarded but pretty cheap, a custom watch has your own personal touch, and best of all it makes you feel more skilled than you actually are.

The 37mm Seiko SNK against the 43mm Seiko SKX. Same face, different effect.

The pre-cursor #

So here’s the confession. Along the way I did succumb to buying the classic Seiko divers watch -- the SKX007. It was a bargain and I hadn’t yet convinced myself I could even attempt to modify a watch of my own.

It’s known for it’s highly legible display with super bright indices and hands that glow far into the night.

And I love it -- but… it’s after owning the SKX I realised I didn’t want to always look like I had a big, flash watch on my wrist. I also often felt quite aware that I had a heavy chunk of steel which was somewhat awkward under a shirt sleeve, as well as quite the accidental weapon when tumbling around with the kids.

But more than that, something never quite sat right with me about the design. The indices are so geometric, so simple. They seem at odds with the elaborate chromed arrow hands, and the visual clutter of the chapter ring and bezel. Also, the centre area seemed fussy with the simple black disc of the second hand on top of a mess of different chrome shapes. Hmm…

The sweep of a mechanical watch is rather nice compared to the ticking seconds of a quartz.

The watch #

The bill of parts:

An original Seiko SNK809K2

The SNK809 is a smallish (37mm) "Fleiger" aviator style watch with a nasty-ish fabric strap and a self-winding automatic 7S26C movement. It’s ridiculously cheap and yet still quite well regarded among watch people. Personally, I don’t like the face, the hands or the strap. But the case is a different matter, it’s a clean, simple design with a nice matt finish and a windowed "display back" so you can see the mechanism moving.

The dial I chose is a direct swap from an SKX diver like mine. Well, actually it was from an SKX009, not a 007, hence the very slight blueish colour. This diver’s face looks bigger in the smaller SNK body, and the design is even more minimal without the minute markings on the chapter ring of the dive watch. Incidentally, I chose the SNK809 as the donor because it’s the only SNK that has a black day/date rotor. It’s actually harder to read than the more normal (and cheaper) white day/date model, but to hell with it, it looks great under the black dial.

Some people get annoyed by issues like this dial having "Divers 200m" printed on it, when it’s actually more like 5m in this watch. I can’t say I care too much about what it says here, any more than when it was on a real diver’s watch. I’ve never seen 5m deep, let alone 200m.

having bright white hands and off-white indices would just remind me that this was a mish-mash

The hour and minute hands are from Dagaz, who make a bewildering array of modding items for watches like this. I wanted hands that were geometrically clean and easy to tell-apart with an orange-red minute hand to match the text on the dial. I also wanted to them to have close to the same type of luminescent paint as used on the Seiko dial. This was just a detail tick of mine, not only would the glow of the dial and hands match, but in sunlight they’d have the same very slightly pale green appearance. It's not a big deal, but having bright white hands and off-white indices would just remind me that this was a mish-mash. No thanks.

It’s the second hand that brings it all together. The one that came with the custom hands from Dagaz was rejected for it’s fussy design. The original one from the SNK had a red tip that just added too much colour when partnered with the minute hand. But the SKX second hand was perfect. It has a simple tapered black and white design and a lumed "lollipop" that almost appears to hover in the middle of no-where. Also, the second hand’s centre disc seemed made for this combination, just hiding the conjunction, but highlighting the shape of the brighter coloured hands below it.

The crystal is unchanged Seiko mineral glass. I like the look of the slightly domed SNK mods, but it seemed like one job too many for this first attempt. Besides, it failed the cost vs worth test, as well as requiring me to buy more tools.

The current strap is a cheap NATO-style nylon strap. It’s comfortable, secure, waterproof (or at least quick-dry) and so cheap it’s practically disposable.

Cheap tools from Amazon and eBay made it all possible.

Building the watch #

It still rattles my mind that when I was a kid, discovering anything extra-curricular was largely down to the pure chance of stumbling onto a book in my small-town library. Actively researching something was hoping for an act of divine intervention.

Back to the present day, and within a couple of hours I’d watched enough YouTube videos to know the process, the tools and the potential pitfalls of taking a watch and swapping parts around, plus decided on a design from doing searches on Pinterest and the like. Amazon and eBay supplied the base model, hands, dial and tools, all for well under €150. Getting a dial and hands from an SKX is easy. It’s the most common model to modify, so unwanted stock parts are often on eBay.

The first attempt felt like victory, before reminding me that doing anything the night before you go on holiday is never a good idea. Basically, it looked nice but didn’t work. Finding another quiet couple of hours to fix it in a regular home with two lovely kids meant waiting another month. But eventually, time was found, and round-two proved more successful.

The process didn’t require a craftsman level of skill, but did take a bit of nerve as -- unsurprisingly -- watches are very small things, made of even smaller things. A steady hand, or alternatively many, many attempts and quiet swearing (plus cups of tea), were needed to accurately place the new hands without wrecking them or the dial.

My first attempt went wrong because I was proudly looking at my handiwork from the top, not the side. I’d missed that the hour and minute hand rubbed very slightly when they crossed, so the watch started by losing a bit of time, and after the spring wound down a bit and wasn’t so powerful, it stopped. It didn’t even last a night, let alone have the advertised "40 hour power reserve". The second attempt required some fettling to remove, re-set and lightly bend all the hands so they cleared each other, but it resulted in a watch that at least reached the minimum requirement; to tell the time.

I’m so glad the mechanism is tough, because it’s been in and out of it’s case so many times. The only two other things that took getting used to were the fear of dust and the fear of moving the winding rotor and having to wait for the damn spring to wind-down again. I can see the real craft in this is getting a workflow to reduce these fears and not find yourself holding a delicate device with two hands and nowhere dust-free to place it.

My Seiko SNK Po-mo

The conclusion #

If becoming interested in watches has taught me anything, it’s that no amount of ideas or photos will tell you what it really looks like until it’s in front of you, on your own wrist.

My little Seiko has turned out more post-modern-style -- hence po-mo -- than I imagined. The simple shapes and bright duo-tone colours give it an almost toy-like appearance. Happily, it also appeared much, much more finished than even I had hoped; to my eyes it doesn’t look like the frankenstein of parts that it is (a common pitfall of many modded watches). The dial design is echoed in the profile of the hands, and the colours and lume fit together like there were from the same pots of paint.

The watch continues to do sterling duty, keeping good time, staying bright at night, and generally making me smile. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the real reason I want to call it a "parent watch"; it’s a product of my very own – other watches are fine, but a prick of pride tells me that "yes, but they’re not like mine".