Building a Watch Company - What Makes a Mill a Mill?

Building a Watch Company - What Makes a Mill a Mill?

Remember that old story you heard as a kid about the girl who could spin straw into gold?

If you’re like us, your parents read it to you out of a book before bed. In the story, a miller brags to his king about how his daughter can achieve this impossible feat of transformation. 

Of course, the miller was lying about her abilities, and every night the girl is stumped, wondering how she can perform such a miracle. But with the help of a strange creature named Rumpelstiltskin and her trusty spindle, she accomplishes the task three nights in a row.

Here at Vortic Watches, we have our own version of the Rumpelstiltskin story going on. We’re creating magic in our own way, taking historical relics in the form of old pocket watches and giving them new life as one-of-a-kind artisan watches that are functional, practical, yet incredibly meaningful pieces of wearable art.

pocket watch converted into vortic wrist watch

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know the watchmaking process is so much more complex than you might think. It requires a highly skilled watchmaker and the ability to accurately and precisely produce very small, intricate parts. None of it is an easy feat, but with teamwork and the right machinery, we’ve had some pretty magical results.

That’s why we want to show you the tools we’ve been working with to craft our watches. Maybe you love playing with tools and toys as much as we do — if so, you’re in for a treat. 

One of the coolest things about how we run our company is our ability to be completely hands-on with everything. And honestly, we’ve got an amazing collection of machinery that makes what we do possible. We certainly enjoy watching our mills hard at work because at the end of the day, we’re not just two entrepreneurs — we’re also two guys who like playing with toys. 

Ready to see what we’re working with? Let's get into it!

Manufacturing at Vortic

To start off, we want to share with you a little background on how we approach the manufacturing process at Vortic.

Our artisan watches are comprised of many parts and are crafted by the brilliance of many minds. The weaving together of watches is a process that we feel adds a lot of dimension and meaning to an already meaningful piece of history.

We put exceptional attention to detail into our all-American made parts, from the California-crafted crystals found in our American Artisan series to the Swiss-turned internal engineering done right here in Colorado to the cases, steel backs, and inserts that are milled in our manufacturing studio. 

We always strive to bring operations in-house. This ensures we can attend to the details and meet our high standards for quality, design, and functionality. 

How Do Mills Work?

Let’s establish what this critical piece of machinery is. Essentially, a mill is meant to pulverize, grind down, or press a substance into smaller, finer pieces. Using a rotary motion, a mill can drill, bore, and cut away at material. In doing this, it can file parts into a specific shape, design, or size. 

vortic mill in motion

“Really what makes a mill a mill is the fact that it has a spinning tool that comes in and shaves material away from things.” - Tyler Wolfe

So back in the day, a mill would be used to grind grain into flour. Today, manufacturers use mills in a variety of ways for a variety of industries, often those involving metal parts like aerospace, engineering, automotive, and medical sciences. 

But no matter what industry they’re being used for, you can define a mill by how it works. They’re not necessarily super complicated. You may have even used one unknowingly!

“If you're using a handheld router to shave wood or something, you're basically acting as a mill. “- Tyler Wolfe

Not all mills are created equal. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can range from very simple, handheld machines to those suited for large-scale production.

“CNC machines come in all shapes and sizes from very small to machines that are as large as this room. … They can be horizontal or vertical. Some machines have multiple spindles that are making multiple parts at once [or have] swiveling heads. The important thing is that you have a spinning tool … and a stationary part that you're shaving material away from. And in a nutshell, that is what a mill is.” - Tyler Wolfe

We’re pretty happy with the mills we use, and we’re happy to say that they’re American made. Let’s dive into the details.

Machines Used at Vortic Watches

The Three-Axis Mill

vortic watches milled cases

First off let’s talk about the machine we’ve been using to  make watch cases. It’s our three-axis mill made by the American manufacturer Haas. It’s a simple but powerful machine.

“[The] three-axis mill [is] kind of the most basic form of a mill.” - Tyler Wolfe

It works via movement on three axes: left to right, top to bottom, and then the movement of the spindle up and down. End mills — similar to drill bits — cut away at the material from the side, chipping it away into the desired shape. 

The drawback with this machine is that it’s not capable of creating angled, geometric features on a part. It’s not very nuanced, so it’s not suitable for more complex projects. 

Pretty simple right? Let’s look at a few more machines.

Haas Super Mini Mill

Vortic Watches CNC Mill

We’ve had our Haas Super Mini Mill since 2017, and it’s one we’ve used heavily. It’s our first CNC mill. CNC mills are pretty common, and they’re used in all types of manufacturing industries.

“One way that this machine is a little bit different than the one we just showed you is that this machine has a fourth axis on it. So this is a four-axis machine. We use our fourth axis on this machine primarily to use tombstones [which are a type of machine part. They will] spin so we can cut [four parts] instead of just three parts at a time.” - Tyler Wolfe

So this Haas mill is a bit more efficient and can save more time and be more precise than the three-axis mill. It’s particularly good when you need to form holes or cut-outs on the side of a cylindrical shape.

Five-Axis Mill 

DMU 5 axis mill

This one is a real beauty and definitely a little more on the higher end of things. Of course, being a mill, it has the same basic mechanism by which it works — a rotary motion that chips away at the metal materials. But there are a number of key differences: 

First, there are two additional axes, which means we can get a lot more done and do more refined work. Having those additional angles makes the process more efficient and precise.

Secondly, there’s a higher capacity for tools.

“Something that makes this machine a little bit more fancy than those other machines is,  first of all, it's got a much larger tool magazine. All three of these machines have automatic tool changers, so they can switch in between different tools. This machine has 60-60 tool changer. Our BM 2 has 30 tools, and our minimill only has 10. So you can kind of see the differences between the machines.”  - Tyler Wolfe

In general, this machine has more components that enable it to do more refined, precise work, which will ultimately make more accurate parts. 

For example, it has a higher spindle speed, which makes a huge difference. 

“When you're making smaller parts faster is better. So we started with our mini mill at 10,000 RPMs and a lower horsepower spindle. Then we moved up to our VM 2  with a 12,000 RPM spindle with even more horsepower. And now we have this machine, which has an 18,000 RPM spindle, [which is] kind of a crazy amount of horsepower.” - Tyler Wolfe

Five-axis mills are typically used for more complex machinery, such as aerospace parts, medical devices, and artificial bones. 

Smaller Mills

small mill at vortic watches

The last two pieces we want to talk about are on the smaller side. We have them set up on a horizontal workspace, and they’re both horizontal machines, as opposed to vertical like the others.

The Pocket NC out of Montana is a horizontal five-axis machine. Just like all other mills, it works via a rotating spindle.  We use this one for small parts and prototyping.

Additionally, we have a manual three-axis mill which is basically the most simple type of mill you could ever get. To use it, you need to spin the rotary piece manually. Tyler has personally used this machine to make watch cases.

Learn More About How We Make Vortic Watches

In today’s mass-produced product market, it’s easy to miss exactly what goes into the manufacturing process. That’s why we love showing you the literal nuts and bolts that go into our watches. We hope that by showing you our process, you can connect even more to the storyline around your watch. Knowing the process by which your watch was made adds another dimension to the final product.

Watchmaking is an art and a science, and we’re so happy to have you along for the ride. Thank you for staying with us and engaging with our content. Be sure to watch the full episode here so you can take a good look at our mills! 

Additionally, please subscribe to the Custer & Wolfe YouTube channel, follow us on Instagram, and subscribe to the Vortic email newsletter, so you can stay updated on new editions and see additional content. Don’t forget to check out our Watch of the Day, and keep an eye out for our upcoming Military Edition. Cheers!

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