Those who are interested in watches seem to come to a singular realization at some point — that is, that changing a strap can completely change the look of a timepiece. Which band to use is so much a consideration that good watches often linger on shelves both physical and digital because they’re attached to less-than-becoming straps. What’s more: you can easily get away with having one great, versatile watch and a bunch of inexpensive straps, and that’s it. You just need to know how to properly change a strap, which is what we’re gonna go over today (keep in mind that we won’t be covering changing or sizing metal bracelets).
NOTE: In this guide, we deal with two different kinds of watches: ones with lug holes and ones without. We also deal with both NATO/single pass-style straps as well as two-piece types.
NATO Straps: Removal
The NATO strap is an old standby from the days of issued military watches — you can read all about their history here and see our favorite ones here. Suffice it to say that a NATO is a pass-through strap comprised of two pieces of nylon (or less commonly, leather). These two pieces are threaded through the watch in such a way that the watches can be hung up by the straps as inventory and the watch heads won't fall off. (Also, the two strap pieces prevent the watch head from slipping around on the strap when it's affixed to your wrist.)
If you’re removing one of these, realize that the watch from which you’re removing it may contain fixed spring bars, meaning that rather than be, you know — springy — they’re actually soldered into the watch’s case and cannot be removed. In this case (or in general, as you typically remove a NATO strap without the need to remove the spring bars), first reach around to the back of the watch strap and slip the bottom keeper (the little metal D-ring-type-thingy) off the bottom half of the strap.
Now you should be left with one long piece of nylon (or leather) threaded through the spring bars of your watch, with the smaller piece of material hanging loose.
Now gently pull the strap through the bottom spring bar of the watch. Don’t yank on it like the stuck front door to your dingy Hoboken apartment — especially if it’s a vintage watch — you could potentially bend or break the spring bar if you’re dealing with a thicker NATO strap. If it feels like the strap won’t easily pass through the spring bars, remove them first. If not, pull the NATO through the bar.
Now simply pull the rest of the NATO strap free of the top spring bar, again being careful on older watches not to damage anything.
Now you should be left with a lonely, naked watch that looks vaguely like this. (Well, it may look nothing like this, but it should be strap-less.)
NATO Straps: Affixing
If you’re beginning with a strap-less watch head, reverse these steps: first, thread the longer half of the NATO through the top spring bar, taking care that the shorter retaining piece is facing away from you.
Continue pulling the strap until the watch head sits near the topmost keeper. Try to place the watch head in a position in which it will sit comfortably on your wrist once it’s affixed to the strap. Generally, you can adjust the watch head a bit once it’s on the strap by simply sliding it along the length of the NATO, but sometimes, if the strap is thick enough, this is difficult to do after the fact. We’ll cover this situation later on in the post when we speak about Rolex spring bars.
Once the watch head seems like it’s in a good spot along the length of the NATO, thread the bottom half of the strap through the bottom spring bar.
After the watch head is affixed to the long side of the NATO, it should look something like this.
Now, fold the bottom tip of the longer (main) piece of the strap through the lower metal keeper on the shorter (retaining) side of the strap, like so.
Pull the long (main) part of the NATO all the way through the keeper, and you’re good to go. Now, if the watch isn’t in an ideal position once the strap is on your wrist, you should be able to slide it up or down along the length of the NATO.
Removing a Strap from a Watch with Drilled Lugs
Certain watches — especially older ones — had a magical feature called “drilled lugs,” meaning that the watch case itself was drilled through at the lugs such that you could poke a special tool through the hole and release the spring bars in order to change a strap. When a case doesn’t have these holes, the operation is made slightly more difficult, and there’s more risk of scratching the back of the case. Additionally, if you have a Rolex sports watch with drilled lugs and you want to affix a NATO or single-pass strap, you may need to remove the spring bars in order to do so. Why? Because Rolex uses specialized, extra-thick spring bars that sit closer to the watch case, meaning that there’s less space in which to slide a strap through.
You’re going to need a tool for this part of the job — one that has this pointy-looking thing on one end. (Here are our picks for best strap-changing tools, in case you missed it).
Ideally when you do this — and especially if you don’t want to scratch your watch — the watch should be secured in a special holder that itself is either attached to a vice or sitting on a non-slip surface (check out the special holder as part of this tutorial on how to open a screw-back watch case back). In reality, many people just plop the watch down on non-slip surface (hopefully covered by some sort of cloth that won’t scratch the watch crystal), or, worse, but still possible — just hold it in their hand. If you change a strap this way, at least grip the watch firmly with the strap in your non-dominant hand so that it can’t go anywhere.
Push the strap-changing tool through the lug hole until you feel the spring-loaded end release from the lug.
Once this happens, use the tool and your non-dominant hand to wiggle the end of the spring bar free of the lug hole so that it doesn’t re-seat. This takes some finesse, as you can scratch the watch’s lugs on the end of the spring bar if you’re not careful. With practice, this operation becomes very quick and easy. Once the spring bar is free (beware of it flying across the room, and, if you’re smart, have spares on hand!), put it down someplace where you on’t lose it.
Repeat this process for the other side of the watch and the second spring bar.
Now, you should be left with a spring bar-less watch and a strap, and hopefully, two spring bars sitting on your desk someplace.
Affixing a Strap to a Watch with Drilled Lugs
A Rolex Submariner serves double-duty as a watch with drilled lugs and a watch whose spring bars you’ll likely have to remove in order to thread a NATO or pull-through, single-piece strap. First, if you’re using a single-piece strap, as in this example, make sure the strap is facing the correct direction, and lay it over the back of the (spring bar-less) watch where you’d like it to sit on your wrist. This is important, because if the watch is a Rolex sport model, like a Submariner, you’ll have to remove the spring bar and re-seat the strap if you don’t seat it correctly the first time.
Grip the watch in your non-dominant hand and with your dominant hand, place the end of the first spring bar in one of the lug holes.
With the forked end of your spring bar tool, carefully (taking care not to scratch the back of the watch’s lugs) push the spring-loaded end of the spring bar away from the lug hole. Once it’s away from the top of the lug, carefully push down on the spring bar so that the end finds the lug hole and seats. The spring-loaded, central piece of the spring bar should pop into the lug hole, and you can check if it’s seated both by feel and by looking into the lug holes from outside the watch.
Once this process is complete for one side of the watch, repeat it for the second side and the second spring bar.
If you’re affixing a single-piece, pass-through strap, then you’re done. If you’re affixing a NATO to, say, a Rolex watch, finish threading the two halves of the NATO together as in the NATO strap guide above, and then you’re good to go.
Removing A Strap From a Watch Without Drilled Lugs
Let’s say you have a watch without drilled lugs (i.e. there are no holes present on the outside of the case to access the spring bars), as is the case with this old-school Seiko on a two-piece strap: You can still change the strap yourself — it’s just going to take a bit more finesse and patience.
You’re going to need to use the fork-shaped end of the spring bar tool for this kind of work.
On a spring bar, the spring-loaded center section terminates in two small lips on either side of the bar that sit flush with the watch case. Gripping the watch (which really needs to be laying flat) with your non-dominant hand, slip the forked end of the spring bar tool in between the strap and the lug such that the space between the two halves of the fork catches this outer lip of the spring-loaded bar. Once you have it (if you’re dealing with a stiff leather strap, it will be harder to get the tool in between the strap and the case), pull the spring-loaded section toward yourself. Once it releases from the case, pull up slightly to clear the bar from the watch.
Once one side of the spring bar is free from the case, sometimes you can simply grab it and slide it out of the other side of the watch (especially with thinner spring bars). If not, you may have to repeat the previous process and dislodge the second half of the bar from the watch case.
Now your watch should be free. Whether you’re using s two-piece strap or a NATO, if your watch has non-drilled lugs, you’d use this same process to dislodge the spring bars from the case.
Affixing a Strap to a Watch Without Drilled Lugs
This process is more or less the same as with a watch with drilled lugs, but you can’t check that the spring bars are seated from the outside, so you have to be a bit more careful — if they’re not seated properly, the watch can go flying off your wrist. First, seat one end of the spring bar in a lug hole.
Use the forked end of the spring bar tool to affix the second half the spring bar using the same process that you would use for a watch with drilled lugs.
Again, be careful when pulling the spring bar toward you not to drag it across the watch case and scratch the lug.
Repeat for the opposite side of the watch.
Check that the spring bars are properly seated by gently moving them up and down and seeing if they dislodge. If not, you’re ready to wear and enjoy your watch with its new strap!