That watch you ordered — that cool, all-steel number — has finally arrived, after days of waiting. You take it out out of the box, remove the stickers and try it on. And unless you have Hulk-sized wrist, what you find is that the bracelet is a few links too big. You have two courses of action: you can take it to a jeweler or repair shop and spend something to the tune of $20 to get it professionally sized, or you can take matters into your own hands.
Fortunately, most watch bracelets come with a pretty simple “cotter pin” system made up of a metal pin within a hole, which holds the links together. That pin is, in some watches, paired with two small metal tubes called “ferrules” that hold it in place at both ends of the link. The pins and ferrules can be removed, either with affordable tools found online, or with whatever you’ve got in your junk drawer. But it’s still a frustrating task that requires finesse and calm. A slip of the wrist could scratch or dent the bracelet. If you put it all back together improperly, your watch could fall off your wrist.
“I’ve seen some horror stories of people trying to do it on their own,” said Steve Kivel of New York’s Central Watch repair shop. “Some are easy, and some can be very difficult, to the point where someone comes into our place, it takes 20 minutes because we have to replace something or change something that got bent while [the customer was] trying to change it.” Kivel recommends taking the watch to a shop if you want it done perfectly; but, for those planning on doing it at home, he shared some tricks and tips on how to remove watch links the right way.
See how many links you need to remove. Nothing in this process will be more frustrating than going through all this trouble only to find you’ve removed too many links. Try on your watch with all the links in on the bracelet. Position it to where you’d like to wear it on your wrist, then gather up the slack and count out how many excess links there are. Also keep in mind the placement of the clasp. Ideally, it should be centered on the bracelet, and you should be taking out an equal amount of links on both sides of the clasp to keep it that way. But, as Kivel notes, on some low-end and used watches, one side of the bracelet may be longer than the other. If this is the case, make sure you’re removing enough links from each side so that the clasp is dead center.
Prepare your workspace. “You want to work on a flat surface,” says Kivel. “If a piece falls out and you’re not expecting it, they’ll easily roll and end up on the floor.” Just to be extra cautious, Kivel also recommends keeping something at the edge of the table to stop any rogue pins or ferrules from falling off. Additionally, a mat or soft surface should be used to protect your metal watch from scratching your tabletop. As a final note, Kivel recommends keeping an uncluttered and calm atmosphere. “As watchmakers, we’re in a clean, quiet and calm environment every day. At home, be in a quiet environment and don’t be distracted by the phone, or texts, or anything else like that.”
Acquire (or make) tools. For removing cotter pins, you’ll need a push-pin tool, a small ball-peen hammer and a watch-bracelet holder — most of which you can get in a preassembled kit. But if you’re in a hurry, or you don’t want to spend the money, you can easily find and MacGyver up your own tools at home. For the bracelet holder, Kivel advises using a piece of hard foam and cutting a groove into it. This way, when you hammer out the pin inside the link, it will stick into the foam and have a place to go. For the push-pin tool, an appropriately sized nail or tack can be used, but Kivel suggests filing down the point into a flat surface to avoid marking up the bracelet.
Knock one out. Once you’ve determined how many links to remove and where to remove them from, look for the small arrows on the back of the bracelet links that indicate which way the cotter pin should come out. Place the watch bracelet in the holder so the arrows are pointing downward. Bring the point of the push-pin tool to the pin and lightly tap against the tool with the flat end of the ball-peen hammer, until you can no longer push the pin inside the link. Remove the pin. Be on the lookout for any small metal ferrules that might have fallen out, and place those and the pins aside. “Take your time and be patient,” Kivel advised. “If you’re trying it and it’s not working out, stop and take it to a professional.”
Put it back together. Once you’ve removed the links, rejoin both ends of the bracelet to form one piece. Grab one of the cotter pins you’ve removed. Put it into the pinhole through the side of the link you pulled the pin from when it was first removed. Place the bracelet back onto the holder, and with the flat end of the hammer gently tap the pin back into place. If one or more ferrules came out when removing the pin, be sure to gently tap those back into place on both sides of the pin hole. Once you’ve completed this, repeat them on the other side of the clasp until the bracelet is the desired size and the clasp is centered.
Additional Illustrations by Silvana Volio de la Fuente