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What is it?

by Jordan Ficklin

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arbres lissesAt a recent gathering of watchmakers we encouraged all to bring a tool they just weren’t sure about. This one managed to stump all of us. The box is labeled “Jeu Arbres Lisses 1re qualite” which as best I can tell means a set of straight shafts or arbors of first quality, But my French is quite rusty (it has been more than 10 years since I studied or spoke any.) There are 24 little “bobbins” inside each with a different size pulley affixed to the shaft. The shafts are of varying lengths and diameters and seem to have a slight taper. If you know what they are and/or what they are for leave a comment, or even if you don’t take a guess.

This set whose pictures I clearly borrowed shamelessly from an ebay auction are not of the exact set brought to our meeting and add an additional clue (in French). They seem to add that they are “rectifies a la meule,” which I guess means they were made with a grinding stone or are perhaps used for grinding? If you know let me know.

arbres lisses

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  1. wnkt
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    According to “Jeu Arbres Lisses 1re qualite” means “Game Trees Smooth 1RE qualite” , whatever THAT means.

    They look like mainspring winders to me, different sizes for different sizes of barrels.
    But I have been known to be wrong before

  2. andy
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    maybe their for changing speed on a drill, or other tool?

  3. Jason
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    They are bits for a traditional watchmaking machine. The type of machine that was used before there was electricity. A fact that is not generally known by exceptionally young watchmakers like yourself.

  4. J.Peter
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Jason, what exactly does this machine do? P.S. There were watchmakers from 30 to 70, both European and American trained in this group and not one of them knew what they were, we would all like to know however.

  5. Jason
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    They are used to machine different watch parts. The picture of the machine that I included is still used sometimes to create parts that do not exist. For example, Audemars Piguet after-sales department (of watchmakers) uses this machine to create parts for high complications such as minute repeaters.

  6. J.Peter
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    This still doesn’t explain how this part works with the machine or why a watchmaker would need a set of 24 different ones.

  7. Jason
    Posted April 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Different sizes for different sizes of parts. I am not 100% sure of what parts are created, because during my 7 hour tour I was mostly listening to French, that was then translated to English. I am pretty sure the Head Watchmaker at Audemars Piguet SA (After Sales Service) said they still use the old fashioned machine to create certain parts for very old watches, where no parts are still available. Using different bits they can essentially machine wheels, hammers, gears, etc…. I am not a watchmaker, so I do not know the deepest technical terms, I can only report on what I was told. As far as the bits you ahve posted I am not 100% sure that this is what they were for, but I think it is a very good guess.

  8. Posted April 18, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Do you have access to larger images, J.Peter? They look like simple ferrules to me, to be used to turn between centers. I have never used them on any work myself nor do I own a set. The longer side of the shaft is the side that the piece to be worked on would be mounted, using shellac et cetera. The ferrule would then be mounted between centers and driven with a bow and string. While they aren’t mainspring winders, wnkt, one could use them to polish the inner surface of a barrel. The parts made, or worked on, using these ferrules have to be hollow or open in the center (off-center to turn eccentrically). The varying sizes allow for differing diameters to be worked on.

    The ferrules hold the potential to be used to gear a turns up or down, but at these sizes wouldn’t serve much effect. The photo that you linked to is a form of wheel topping engine, Jason. I have never seen a wheel topping engine with interchangeable pulleys, as you suggest, only interchangeable supports and cutters.

  9. J.Peter
    Posted April 19, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    This is the best guess yet. I can definitely imagine using them between centers to turn something with a hole in the center.

  10. Posted April 19, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Jp,
    Maybe you have stumbled on an antique mainspring winder? The terminology ‘Jeu d’arbres lisses’ – rectifies a la meuele translates into English- One set of free arbors/ polished with stone. Cheers!

  11. Jason
    Posted April 19, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I am not exactly sure what bits are pictured above, but I think we can all agree that they are some type of bits ( hence the variety of sizes) used for watchmaking back in the day!

    Polishing is a good guess.

  12. Dushan Grujich
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Good Day JP,

    The set shown on the photograph is a set of turning arbours which are used in turns between centres and arbours are driven by a bow. The intended purpose is for turning small parts like balance spring collets, or retaining collets for cylinders and similar parts of brass or steel. There is no need to use shellac, part worked on is held by friction, that is the reason for such a large number. Each one covers a small diameter range, if You look closely at them You will notice that they are conical to allow holding of the work-piece by friction.

    I have two sets, one for larger parts and one for smaller, e.g. balance spring collets for lever escapement and larger for cylinder balance spring collets since collets for cylinders are of larger diameter, same as the cylinder itself.

    They are of slightly different form, intended for use in watchmaker’s lathe between centres to be driven by lathe driver.

    If You would like to see them I shall send You few images.

    Turning arbours are a simple tool, but very effective, if one knows how to use them.



  13. J.Peter
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Dushan, now there is an answer that makes since. You always have very knowledgeable posts on HM about tools so I am sure you are right. Thank you for solving an old mystery.

  14. Michael
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Dushan is correct, of course, I would love to see his stock of tools. The picture posted by Jason is a “rounding up” tool and looks to be the exact model I have.

  15. Posted February 9, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    G’day Michael!

    You can have a peek at some of my tool if You follow the link:



  16. Nick
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    That looks like some sort of wheel cutting machine to me. The disk held in the turns looks to be a blank. The cutter is in the top right of the machine. It pivots down to cut the wheel and the depth is set by the 2 thumb screws which contact the 2 flat plates on the middle left. The different pulleys could be used to automatically index the blank.

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