Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TuffThumbz Buck Advantage Review

The Buck Vantage Small was one of those pieces of gear.  Every time I held it or carried it or used it I thought that it could be GREAT, truly great, if only a few things were different.  The bones of a great piece of gear were all there.  In its effort to put out a new blade, one that would serve as the template for dozens of variations, Buck created a knife with outstanding fundamentals.  But as they pushed the budget down on the blade the fit and finish went awry.  My Buck Vantage Small Select had atrocious fit and finish.  Reports from all over the knife world were the same--the fit and finish on the Vantage series was terrible.  Nonetheless, the design always beckoned me to do something about the Vantage's problems.

Around a year ago I started watching Geoff Blauvelt's YouTube feed.  We all know him as TuffThumbz (check out his NEW website, it is pretty swanky).  Over that year or so I marveled, like most of us do, over his tweaks to production knives, tweaks that brought custom like features to affordable blades.  After two or three weeks of watching his videos I decided that I would sell off some gear and save some money and have him pimp out a Buck Vantage Small.  The idea was that I would have him fix the fit and finish and then add some new features and put his trademark TuffThumbz touches on the blade.  I contacted Geoff and we worked out a deal.  I would send him a Buck Vantage Small Pro, with its Paul Bos-treated S30V straight from an internet knife store, and then I would deposit $120 in his PayPal account for the following modifications and upgrades:

1.  Stonewash the blade and clip
2.  Round over the spine of the knife
3.  Add jimping to the spine
4.  Replace the standard G10 scales with carbon fiber scales
5.  Tweak the centering and overall fit and finish on the blade

Geoff decided to also bronze the standoffs and the pivot screw.

The knife that I got back had so much added to it that I thought it would be clever to call it the Buck Advantage--all of the nice features of the Vantage with some new stuff added.

There is only one of these out there (and it is in my pocket as I write this), so the normal "here" paragraph is going to be abbreviated.  Here is the standard Vantage Small product site.  The Pro upgrades the handle scales to G10 and the blade steel to the deliciously awesome Bos-treated S30V.  Buck had discontinued all of the Vantage small models, but they are still readily available from places like:
  
Blade HQ

Here is the video from TuffThumbz showing off the Advantage for the first time (video around 6:58). 

Finally, here is Advantage is all of its glory:

IMG_0031

Custom Maker Feedback

First, a little variation on the normal form.  From now on when I review custom or modified stuff, I am going to put in a little bit of feedback on the buying experience itself.  Custom gear is more expensive and unless you know the maker or meet them at a show, it generally involves contacts made over the internet.  Sending people you don't know a lot of money for something you can't touch or see in person is a daunting experience.  To make it more transparent and accessible I am going to review my buying experience.  It doesn't necessarily mean this will be what happens to you, but it is a data point you can use in generating your opinion about whether or not you should buy something from a given custom maker.

Generally there are five things to be concerned about when buying custom gear: 1) quality of work; 2) speed; 3) price; 4) uniqueness; and 5) communication.  All of these things are highly variable.  For example, speed is all relative.  You may be willing to tolerate the necessary five year wait for a Randall configured as you want it.  For other people that would drive them nuts.  As such all of these things are context dependent.     

One of the main reasons to buy custom gear is because it is of a higher quality than the mass produced stuff.  In this regard Geoff's mods do not disappoint.  The finish on the CF scales is smooth and convex.  The jimping is probably my favorite jimping I have ever used and the acid wash is simple a marvel.  In terms of quality of work, the TuffTumbz experience is first rate.

Speed, well, speed is where Geoff's real life interfered with the process.  Geoff was moving from one shop to another and really upgrading his entire operation when I sent in my Vantage.  As a result it took from March until September to get the knife back.  I think this is an aberration.  Others have received their stuff back in very short order, so I will chalk the pokey pace of processing my order up to these other things.  Slow, but for good reason.

Goeff's prices are highly competitive.  The entire mod cost me $120 and is easily worth it in my opinion.  Not only is the CF he used hard to find and difficult to cut (safely), everything was done in a way that exceeded my expectations.  Its not just what he did, but how he did it that makes this mod a bargain, in my opinion.

This also goes to the uniqueness of what he did.  There is nothing out there that looks remotely like my Vantage.  It is pure ThuffThumbz style--the Fallout treatment--and the result is an awesome looking blade that no one else has but me.  That is the very definition of uniqueness and it is borne out of Geoff's remarkable design aesthetic and his quality work.

All of this is great, but communication is the key when buying custom stuff.  If the maker is slow and doesn't communicate you get antsy with a lot of money riding on the line.  In this regard, no one I have dealt with was as responsive and as quick to communicate as Geoff.  Finally, following Geoff's videos while I waited for my knife to makes it debut on camera was really exciting.  When it finally slid out from the right side of the screen in Geoff's trademark reveal shot I was super pumped. 

Overall this is an excellent experience and I would recommend it to anyone.  The slow pace of my mod is both unusual for Geoff and understandable under the circumstances.  He was excellent in all five categories. 

Knife Score

Because this is a modded knife, the score is going to be a reflection of the underlying knife itself, as well as any mods done to it.  Here is a review of the Buck Vantage Small Select.  This knife, when stock, has upgraded blade steel and handle scales.  Everything else is the same.  I didn't choose this knife in a vacuum.  There are things about the stock knife that I really, really like.  The fit and finish and lack of jimping were the two major complaints.  With so few flaws and some really great bones, I thought this would be a perfect knife to mod.

Design: 2

The stock version of this knife is a great design.  It goldilocks itself right into the perfect size for me--slightly larger than the DF II and yet not as big as the more full sized knives like the Small Sebenza and the Benchmade Mini Grip.  The blade shape is a superb interpretation of the drop point, probably the best I have seen in a folding knife (as an almost exactly copy of the Sebenza's blade shape, I'd say, officially, it is a tie).  The clip is a design masterstroke.  The overall size and shape of the knife is quite pleasing in the hand and the pocket.  Stock this is a 2 point design.

But there were some things missing.  The knife's relatively flat spine over both the blade and the handle meant that sliding forward was something that could happen in serious cuts.  And while jimping is not normally a requirement on knives this size, here it would be nice.  I also liked the pleasant to the touch rounded spine on the Sebenza. 

Tuffthumbz delivered all of this and more.  The jimping is incredibly effective, locking the hand in place, but that's not all.  It looks AMAZING:

IMG_0036


At first I was worried it would be a pocket chewer but nothing could be further from the truth.  This knife simply slides in and out (more on that later).  The rounded spine is equally nice, cutting weight on the knife AND making it easier to extract.  

Size-wise this knife does okay overall.  The stock's ratios were:

Blade:handle: .71
Blade:weight: 1.41

The Advantage changes only one ratio, the blade:weight coming in at

Blade:weight: 1.03

The change comes about because of the much beefier handle scales:

IMG_0004

At first I wasn't sure if the added thickness was a good thing, but when I compared the weight difference (.2 ounces) I realized it was worth it.  More on why below.

Obviously, if this was a 2 before, its still a 2 now.  A great knife made better.  

Fit and Finish: 2

The fit and finish on the unmodded Select I have is horrible.  The blade actually rubs against the liner.  There is a blade play.  The finish on the blade is crude and ugly, as if they skipped the last two grit levels on the grinding belt to save time.  Lock up is SUPER late on the stock model and the blade is pushed off center by the out of line lock bar (you can see it in the picture above). 

On the TuffThumbz Advantage all but one of the problems has been corrected.  The blade alignment, while not perfect, is much, much better.  Even when I loosen the pivot all of the way, the blade still stays about 85%-90% centered.  The finish on the blade is an amazing TuffThumbz special, part of the Fallout package.  He calls it a dark acid wash.  Whatever it is, it is absolutely gorgeous:

IMG_0033

Moreover, it smooths out the rough grind lines on the blade and gives the blade a surface virtually impervious to wear.  I really wrenched on this baby in making a fire recently, cutting huge chucks out of 2x material and even making divots in 1/2 inch baltic birch (a material known for its dimensionally stability and toughness; it is used in die and jig making and is called "pressboard").   This is after cutting up some kindling and slicing, with great ease, through a series of cardboard boxes.  The finish looks IDENTICAL.  Even the extra wear on the main grind bevel is awesome.  The lock up is still a problem, but more on that below.  The bronzed backspacer and pivot screw complete the look--a well worn, battle scarred knife that just happens to be new and better than before.   

Grip: 2

This is a chunky handle now, about as thick as a Benchmade Mini Grip.  With that extra thickness, comes a better grip (insert inappropriate joke here).  The handle scales create an excellent surface for your thumb to rest against the spine of the knife, creating a ton of leverage that was impossible before.  Additionally, Geoff must have curved these scales more than the stock version as they just appeal to my hands more.  And then there is the jimping, oh, the jimping.  Geoff hit an absolute home run with this configuration.  Their wider, gear like appearance is both sweet and functional.  I am stunned at the stuff I can do with this knife now.  The extra curve and spine allow you to bring an enormous amount of force to bear, something I didn't feel comfortable doing before. 

Carry: 2

The satin finished, wood scale carbon fiber handles coupled with the perfect pocket clip makes this a knife that glides into the pocket like a ballerina crossing the stage.  It is graceful, effortless, and convenient.  Plus, the size is, as I said above, perfect--not too big and not too small.  The extra girth on the handle (again, insert inappropriate joke) is not that big an issue, making the knife feel like a Mini Grip when pocketed.  But the clip's tension, thanks to a small tweak to the angle by Geoff, is still plenty firm.  It doesn't fall out of my suit slacks, let alone jeans.  Amazing job. 

Steel: 2

We have come to the place of magic.  Paul Bos does Buck's heat treating and through careful management of the steel's settling phase (I am sure there is a more technical term, but this gets the point across) he coaxes every last drop of performance out of a steel.  Here he does it with a steel that is already pretty high performance.  The result is a blade that rivals if not surpasses ZDP-189.  On top of that there is the friction reducing smooth acid wash finish that Geoff does.  Together this is a symphony of slicing abilities. 

Blade Shape: 2

Geoff did nothing to alter this.  There was no reason to do so.  The drop point here reminds of two staples of the knife world--one old and one new.  The long flat cutting edge rising up to a generous belly echoes the lines of a Case Sodbuster, one of the all time classic utility blade shapes.  The subtle and elegant drop point is reminiscent of a Sebenza, another all time utility classic.   

Grind: 2

The high hollow grind of the original goes untouched, except for a little smoothing out of the grind lines.  Really, there is no reason to alter the grind here.  The Bos-treated S30V steel is so tough that the risks associated with a thin grind are gone.  This is a slicer of the first order and Geoff only improved that by reducing the friction from the crude grind.  

Deployment Method: 2

The stock phosphor bronze washers give the knife a smooth and quick deployment.  Geoff retained this and I can flick the knife open with both the flipper (which I actually like, those long flippers cause extraction problems or carry problems in my experience) and the thumb oval.  Note that this is a smooth knife, but not necessarily the fastest in the world.  I don't consider this a problem given the size of the blade.  In a tactical knife I can see the concern.  In a blade this small that's not a problem. 

Retention Method: 2

But the clip's tension, thanks to a small tweak to the angle by Geoff, is still plenty firm.  It doesn't fall out of my suit slacks, let alone jeans.  Amazing job, see here:

IMG_0034

He also stone washed it making it more impervious to wear.  He made a great pocket clip even better.  The result is a knife that stays in place, but is extracted with ease and grace. 

Lock: 1

All of Geoff's magic, however, could not fix the late lock up, and when I say late, I mean, REALLY late:

IMG_0007
  

If I flick open the knife I get better lock up than that.  If I slow open it with the thumb hole, it goes all the way over.  The weird thing is, no matter where it is--late or all the way over--there is no blade play whatsoever.  This flaw is probably beyond Geoff or anyone's ability to fix.  Buck uses no better than 420J in its liners, a super soft steel, and the blade itself is made of Bos-treated S30V, a very hard surface.  Perhaps carbidizing the end would add some life on to the lock, but since it has ZERO impact on performance, I am not going to worry about it.  Eventually, when I have, again lost my sanity (spending $120 on a $50 makes little sense, yes I know this was crazy), I might have someone make this baby a frame lock with a Ti lock side (completing the transformation of this knife from production, to mod, to custom).  Given all that, this gets a 1.  If problems occur, I will update the review, but I have had and used this thing for about two months and I have seen nothing of the sort. 

Finally, here is a picture with the Advantage's Ligh&Saber buddy, a very fine AA light from EagleTac the D25A in Ti, with a neutral tint XML emitter.

IMG_2680

A great light for a great knife.  Now I just need to figure out how to acid wash the D25A.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Its hard to complain here.  The knife's basics were so good to start out with and then Geoff changed and improved it exactly how I wanted it done.  But that's not the reason I really like this knife and Geoff's work in general.  Here is the real reason--Geoff has an aesthetic and design sensibility that puts him in the same league as many of the finest knife designers in the industry.  His eye and skill are what makes this knife awesome.  The jimping is a perfect example.  He could have done the jimping in a bunch of different ways, but he did it using the geared look.  He got the feel just right and he got the appearance just right and the two play well with each other.  This is why this knife rocks.

Mark my words.  I said it here first.  There will be a day when we look back on Geoff's work the way we look back on early customs from some of the finest makers that were eventually signed to big deals with major knife makers, guys like Ken Onion.  To describe Geoff and his work as merely modding a knife is not fair.  He transforms these blades.  And if this presages is own, unique work--be prepared.  If he keeps it up, this knife will be on the Antiques Roadshow in 100 years as an "early example of Blauvelt's work".  If I were a knife company, say Kershaw looking to inject some distinct styles into my incredibly bland product line up, I'd have called Geoff a long time ago.  Blade HQ was smart when they bought some Toads off of him.  Someone is going to scoop him up sooner or later and for good reason.

I am thrilled with the knife and especially Geoff's work.  

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful job you got done on your knife, Tony. The only work I truly 'need" on mine is the rounding and gimping on the blade and rounding the liners/scale edges next to liners, because that area is noticeably sharp on my index finger when I use the flipper.

    I noted that Geoff does not like the flipper and uses the hole for opening. I'm just the opposite. Nicer scales would be pretty, but I have no problem with the looks of the standard scales. Your reviews encouraged me to buy this and the ZDP DragonflyII already, so this may be the next step to my financial destruction. It's a fun trip!

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  2. Paul Bos retired from day-to-day operation of Buck's heat treatment shop several years ago, although he still serves as a consultant and provides custom heat treatment services. The arrangement he had with Buck allowed him to run his own heat treatment operation out of Buck's shop.

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    1. Thinks for this tidbit. It only adds a bit to his image of being a wizard. I 'd love to do an interview with him.

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  3. This Cinderella-level makeover lets us appreciate what a nice underlying EDC design the Vantage Small has (or had).

    I would have bought one a long time ago if not for the pervasive fit & finish problems. I inspected two large Vantages in person some months ago and both had crummy liner locks.

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