Still on the Cutting Edge : Once Made From Discarded Files, Their Knives Are Ready for Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Al Buck died on Easter in 1991, the 400 employees of Buck Knives looked into ordering a memorial plaque. When the estimate came back they were irate.

"That's not big enough," they complained.

They wound up with a bronze plaque costing $3,000, bearing Buck's likeness and their testimony to him as "our founder and our inspiration. We won't forget you, Al."

"Al"?

In how many companies do the workers call the boss by his first name? In how many companies do the workers even know the boss?

It's always been that way at Buck Knives. It probably always will be, as they continue turning out the some of the world's best-known knives--outdoor, indoor and lately, SwissBuck--up to 12,000 a day.

"We can't make 'em fast enough," Charles T. (Chuck) Buck says.

The U.S. military carried Buck M9s--knife, bayonet, saw, wire cutter and bottle opener, all in one--to the Persian Gulf and Somalia.

Chuck Buck is the third-generation president. His grandfather, Hoyt, and father, Al, started the company in nearby San Diego in 1945, and his son, C.J., is destined to take over.

Other companies that successful are gobbled up by conglomerates, with cheap labor turning out cheapened products somewhere overseas. Not at Buck Knives. Not while there's a Buck around. The family still owns 60% of the shares of privately held stock, and all 200 kinds of knives are still made under the same 4 1/2-acre roof.

"It's been tough because we've had some pretty good offers for this company," Chuck Buck said. "When I get an offer I ask C.J., 'How about it? Do you want to sell?' and he says, 'No way.' "

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Hoyt Buck never dreamed it would be like this. Around the turn of the century, he scratched out a living as an apprentice blacksmith, sharpening hoes for Kansas farmers. When Hoyt sharpened them, they stayed sharp, largely because of the special tempering process he used. The process has been highly modified in modern times and now the blades are heated to 2,000 degrees, then frozen at 120 below zero to stabilize the steel.

But Hoyt's legacy is in the company's trademark motto: "Famous for holding an edge!" But it was a long time before he thought of going into the knife-making business.

"My granddad made the first Buck knife in 1905 in Leavenworth, Kan., but he just made 'em for friends," Chuck Buck said.

Hoyt's son Al discovered San Diego when he reported to the Naval Training Station in 1927, about the time Hoyt, a lay minister, was starting a blacksmith shop in the basement of a church in Mountain Home, Ida. In 1945, Hoyt joined Al in San Diego and announced they were going into the knife-making business in a lean-to next to Al's garage.

Al, at the time, was driving a bus. He liked driving a bus.

"How could anybody make any money making knives?" he wondered.

But "H.H. Buck & Son" was in business. They called on butcher shops in the morning and made knives to fill orders in the afternoon. Their raw material consisted of discarded files salvaged from the Consolidated Vultee airplane factory--now Convair--and soon they were producing all of 25 knives a week.

Hoyt died of cancer in 1949 but before he went was able to say: "Now I feel my life is almost complete. My son can make knives."

The main line was six models of hunting knives, priced from $12 to $20, when others were selling for about $2. Furthermore, the Bucks insisted, each would have a lifetime guarantee.

Al said later, "We were convinced that people will pay additional money for additional quality."

He was right, but it took him years to prove it. The business remained virtually hand-to-mouth until 1963, when he developed the Folding Hunter, a hollow-ground, wood and brass-handled, 3 3/4-inch folding field knife with a locking blade suitable for hunting, fishing, camping or just whittling. Orders boomed, and that knife--the 110 model--remains the backbone of the company. More than 12 million have been sold--not counting imitations by rival companies.

"There have been some tough times," Chuck Buck said.

Early this year, he had to lay off 22 employees, plus four executives. But when business improved in August, he hired back all of those who had not found other jobs.

Now, a Buck knife costs from $10 for a two-inch pocketknife up to $3,500 for a custom creation, perhaps with gold-filled etching on the blade and a 10,000-year-old mastodon tusk handle exhumed from a glacier in Alaska. Buck has produced limited-edition commemorative knives for everybody from Presidents Reagan and Bush to country singers Merle Haggard and Roy Clark. Those aren't used for whittling.

The lifetime guarantee is still intact, and the return, Chuck Buck said, is "probably about half of 1%."

Once, the company risked compromising quality when it sub-contracted a line of inexpensive pocketknives.

"Of course, those knives were guaranteed just like all of ours," Chuck Buck said. "But there were so many of them that didn't hit Buck's quality standards, we just shipped 'em back. The owner called me one day and said, 'My board told me I need to sell 'em. Although they don't meet your standards, they're still good knives.' "

The vendor said he had an offer to dispose of the knives through swap meets. He'd even grind off the Buck trademark.

Chuck Buck recalled telling him: " 'No, Mel. How about if I just buy 'em from you?' I figured he had a couple thousand. 'I'll give you a dollar apiece for 'em.' Turned out, a big truck backs up about two weeks later with 60,000 of these reject pocketknives--and I had to pay for it."

Buck donated them to Christian missionaries, who distributed them in Africa. Some went to a Baptist orphanage where, Buck said: "The kids were using pieces of tin cans to split the bamboo so they could weave baskets. That's how the orphanage maintained its food supply."

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The solution was a natural for the Bucks. Besides a tempering process and standards of quality, they inherited a Christian ethic from their forebears.

Each knife comes with a small note from Al Buck: " . . . the fantastic growth of Buck Knives was no accident. From the beginning, management determined to make God the senior partner. In a crisis, the problem was turned over to him, and He hasn't failed to help us with the answer. Each knife must reflect the integrity of management, including our senior partner. . . . If any of you are troubled or perplexed and looking for answers, may we invite you to look to Him . . . (John 3:16)."

Chuck Buck said some dealers have asked him to leave out the preachy message. He has told them, "If you don't like it, take it out yourself."

Buck recalled the member of an organization who asked Buck to donate a knife for a raffle but liked it so much that he thought he'd keep it for himself--until he saw the message.

And the woman who wrote that she was contemplating suicide but decided first to buy one more nice thing for herself: a Buck knife. She said she saw the message and changed her mind.

Buck's files contain letters from people whose lives were saved by Buck knives--a sailor entangled in an anchor line, a fisherman swept down a flood control channel who jammed the knife into a crack for a handhold.

Buck strolls the factory, chatting with the workers who seem at ease with the boss looking over their shoulders. He estimates that 65-70% of the work is still done by hand, if with the aid of machines.

Greg Gardner, the supervisor of fabrication and a 24-year employee, said: "When I started, there were 35 people. We didn't have any engineering, we didn't have any purchasing, we didn't have computers. Now we're a full manufacturing outfit, but Chuck Buck will still come right down into the shop. He'll say, 'This isn't good enough, let's make it better,' and it's been that way all the time.

"Quality, quality, quality--that's the way we feel. Sometimes you hear people say, 'The knives aren't as good as they used to be.' They don't know what they're talking about. We've lived here with it all these years."

Chuck Buck said: "We feel like the employees are part of the family, too. It sounds hokey, but it's true. We treat our people right, and they really give back. If it isn't for the quality, Buck isn't going to be here."

When a visitor alluded to a scene in the first Crocodile Dundee movie when actor Paul Hogan responded to a knife-wielding mugger by pulling a Bowie-type knife, Buck recalled Hogan's line.

"That was a really cheap knife," Buck said of Hogan's weapon.

Picking up one of his own finished products, he said, "Now, this is a knife."

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