Published: January 30, 2024 | Updated: February 13, 2024

Staying sharp for four generations

Lukky Carr edges a knife at Buck Knives in Post Falls. Established in San Diego in 1902, the company moved to North Idaho nearly 20 years ago.

Lukky Carr edges a knife at Buck Knives in Post Falls. Established in San Diego in 1902, the company moved to North Idaho nearly 20 years ago.

POST FALLS — The first Buck knife was forged in 1902 and the rest of the Buck Knives legacy is history.

Buck Knives and its handcrafted, custom knives have been in Post Falls nearly 20 years, a decision CEO CJ Buck says could have saved the company millions if it had been done years sooner.

“The success we had was relocating,” he said, seated in his office on a windy Jan. 9 morning. “The failure we had was not doing it 10 years earlier.”

Buck's great-grandfather Hoyt Buck was born in Leavenworth, Kan., where he apprenticed in a local blacksmith shop at a young age and started making knives on the side.

"That’s where it all began," CJ Buck said.

Hoyt Buck moved to Washington at 17, where he met and married his future wife and raised a family in Snohomish.

CJ's grandfather, Al Buck, joined the Navy and fell in love with San Diego during his military travels. He settled there after stints in the Navy, logging in Alaska and serving in the Coast Guard in Chicago.

“He was actually in the Coast Guard during Prohibition in the ’20s," CJ said. "He was protecting America from Canadian alcohol. They were doing things by boat, it’s kind of funny.”

When his great-grandfather transitioned the business to his grandfather, "it was one custom knife maker teaching another custom knife maker how to make knives," CJ Buck said.

The cream of the crop for business at that time was San Diego, and that's where Al Buck really established Buck Knives and set the stage for it to become the thriving manufacturing company it is today. That's where CJ's dad, Chuck, grew up in the company.

"My father learned everything there was to learn about the business up to that point. Had no experience beyond," CJ Buck said. “My father inherited a thriving manufacturing operation, and he knew everything there was to know about making knives and making knives efficiently."

The transition from one generation to another is more complex than one might imagine. Although the successors have grown up knowing the business, their experience goes no further than the knowledge of their predecessors. 

CJ Buck inherited the company in the late 1990s and it was a much different world than what his dad and grandfathers knew. The retail landscape especially was different.

“We were working with Kmarts and Walmarts and we weren’t just small dealers," CJ said. "Imports barely existed in the ’80s, so we just had a heyday of growth in the ’80s. So in the ’90s, I had learned that element, but by the time we got into the 2000s, the important scenario was completely different, the quality aspect, the investment.

"We also had a number of American brands that were importing product, and so it wasn’t coming across like imports," he continued. "They were coming across like American companies and American brands, but they had a huge cost advantage on us.”

He said as the company entered 2010 and beyond, the internet and online shopping once again altered the market.

“From a transition standpoint, it changes every time,” CJ said.

For the first time in the company's history, Buck Knives has hired an outside president, Lane Tobiassen, to mentor CJ's son Josh before CJ retires. 

“One of the things I had wished with my father was that he had put someone between he and I," CJ said. "When he was ready to retire, I wasn’t ready. There were no options."

Buck Knives also has a board of directors, which comes with a great diversity of experience and background.

“Having multiple dance partners really teaches you how to dance,” CJ said. "I’ve only been here, so I really wanted my son to have access to that type of expertise."

Succession has been necessary to navigate for the past century, but an obstacle that could not be foreseen was the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down much of the country for several months.

CJ said going into 2020, the company was already on shaky ground because of a couple loss years.

"I'm going to call it corporate chemotherapy," he said. 

Buck Knives instituted a minimum advertised price program in 2018 to clamp down on issues with distribution and cost. The company had 78 distributors and cut off sales to 75 of them, as well as to Amazon. This caused a 15-20% drop in business, CJ said.

That made for a stressful year, as well as 2019, during which bank relations became strained. Then COVID hit.

"Just when we needed someone to feel confident about our business, nobody was confident about anything," he said. "It was a prayer time for us."

A bank took a risk on the company, and those prayers were answered. Rather than take down Buck Knives, it made it more of a household name as people took to the outdoors, gathered survival gear, went on more camping adventures and sought out American-made products.

Buck Knives came out on top. The store now employs more than 300 people. The on-site store is in the middle of an expansion to be even more of a destination for guests and tour-goers and a capital program is just about underway to bring in new equipment.

"We have come back stronger," CJ said. "There's a corporate vitality."

And with all the grandbabies CJ's so proud to speak of, Buck Knives could very well continue for generations into the future.

 Buck Knives employee Sterling Minkler wipes down chef knives Jan. 9. The Post Falls company employs over 300 people.

    CJ Buck, chairman and CEO of Buck Knives Inc., discusses the company's family history and successes while seated in his office in Post Falls. Buck represents the fourth generation to lead the company.
    Craftsman Andrew Avoux discusses different materials used for knife handles at Buck Knives.
    Quality inspector Kim Wendland looks over 60th anniversary Buck Knives crafted with Honduran rosewood handles.
    Products are made with a variety of wood and antler handles at Buck Knives in Post Falls.
    Hoyt and Daisy Buck in Mountain Home, Idaho, in the 1940s. Hoyt Buck was the first knife maker in the Buck family, which has operated the Buck Knives company for four generations.
    Four generations of Bucks are seen at the Buck factory in El Cajon, Calif., in 1986. From left: Chuck Buck, current Chairman and CEO CJ Buck holding baby son Josh Buck and Al Buck.