Erin Healy Blog

Of Blue Mohawks, Butterfly Knives and Buddies

If you could apply a motto to VMX Knives it would be: Let’s have some fun. At least that’s the impression you get after talking with co-owners James Robert Buckley of Maverick Customs and Kyle Vallotton of three-generation-strong Vallotton Custom Knives. Rob and Kyle became friends online. For BLADE Show 2017, Kyle—sporting a new do—invited Rob, whom he calls Buckley, to share space at the Vallotton table. But due to a confluence of issues, Kyle, who is known for his butterfly art knives, had no balisongs at the table this year. Rob, a machinist and welder before getting into knifemaking, asked Kyle if he’d look at a design he’d come up with for a balisong. Kyle liked it. The men agreed to make the knife together, Kyle bringing his expertise in the art-balisong industry to the newcomer and Rob offering to show Kyle what he knew about machining steel. It wasn’t long before a work flow was ironed out and the VMX-1 was brought from paper to reality, a baby born of blue mohawks, butterfly knives and buddies.

Rob Buckley was a machinist and welder before he got into knifemaking full-time.

James Robert Buckley is the owner of Maverick Customs out of Horse Cave, Kentucky. He is also the co-owner with Kyle Vallotton of VMX Knives.

Rob Buckley grew up in Glasgow, Kentucky, about 45 minutes northeast of Bowling Green. While in high school and working at a family-owned cabinetry shop, he came to a realization: “I hated wood,” he said, laughing. But he took college-level courses in welding and machining. “It got me,” he said of metalwork. At 17 he entered the Army, wanting combat medic, but settling for infantry. He sustained injuries that would require surgery before continuing his training, so he accepted the proffered medical discharge. Returning home, he landed a machining job in Dickson, Tennessee, where his parents were living at the time. After those few months as a manual machinist and welder, he moved back to Glasgow to work as a certified welder. Six months later he took a position at a magazine printing plant, staying for 10 years. He left for a computer numeric controlled (CNC) machinist position, but he found operating the computer-programmed mills and lathes not as satisfying as hands-on metalworking. Three years ago he began making tools, then later knives, full time.

Kyle Vallotton specializes in art balisongs at Vallotton Custom Knives.

Kyle Vallotton hit BLADE Show 2017 with a blue mohawk. He is a third-generation knifemaker and the fifth person in his family to be making knives under Vallotton Custom Knives. He is also co-owner of VMX Knives with James Robert Buckley of Maverick Customs.

Kyle Valloton marks the third generation and fifth family member to be making knives under Vallotton Custom Knives. He began in the shop when he was 10 years old. He took some time off to test jobs away from the family business, such as telephone sales representative, but by the time he was 23, he knew he wanted to make knives for a living. He grew up in Umpqua, about an hour and a half south of Eugene. His grandfather Butch was an innovator in the tactical folder and automatic knifemaking world. The Vallottons hold 15 patentable developments with seven still-running royalty contracts. Vallotton innovations appear in numerous production knives, from Gerber to Spyderco.

Kyle, Rainy and Butch Vallotton have been making knives for close to four decades.

Kyle Vallotton, left, specializes in high-end balisongs, tapping into both the artistry of his dad, Rainy, and the innovations of his grandpa, Butch, right.

Kyle’s dad, Rainy, made his mark in the high-end art-knife market, and Kyle’s specialty is the butterfly knife. He taps into both his grandfather’s exactitude in specifications and his father’s artistic flare. Kyle’s demeanor exudes good-natured enthusiasm and a sense of fun without being reckless. He contemplated attending BLADE Show 2017 sporting a blue mohawk, but wasn’t sure how it would go over. Finally, he decided to do it. “Let’s have some fun,” he said. “Everyone loved it.”

The first VMX-1s will ship mid-November, 2017.

The VMX-1 prototype was made of BG42, but the production model has a 4-inch blade of CPM 154 steel. The prototype handle is black titanium, but custom-colored anodized titanium handles are available. Artwork by Zach Burcham of West Main St. Tattoos in Glasgow, Kentucky.

The balisong segment of the knife community is a microcosm of the knife industry itself. There are those who use the knives in the practice of Filipino-style martial arts; those who use the knives in a mesmerizing display of twirling and tricks, resplendent with the individual’s unique style; and those who collect the knives created as works of art. In addition, because many states have laws preventing the sale of balisongs—only trainers can be used by residents of those states. Kyle mentioned that he follows Knife Rights‘ work to overhaul outdated knife regulations in numerous states.

Rob jokes that he knows just enough about flipping balisongs to cut himself. In fact, VMX Knives will sell you its butterfly knife without an edge if you prefer. At any time, you are welcome to send it back if you decide you want to go with a live blade.

Zach Burcham of West St Tattoos in Glasgow, Kentucky, designed the VMX Knives logo.

Zach Burcham, owner of West Main St. Tattoos in Glasgow, Kentucky, designed the logo for Maverick Customs and was brought in again to combine the M from Maverick Custom’s logo as well as a V for Vallotton Custom Knives to create the VMX Knives logo. Like the VMX-1 balisong itself, the logo uses old-school lettering with a modern twist.

Rob got his tattoo artist, Zach Burcham of West Main St Tattoos, who designed the M logo for Maverick Customs—named after Rob’s son—to come up with a logo that incorporated a V for Vallotton with the M for Maverick, and the VMX Knives logo was born. It is representative of the gold-leafing in signs of yore in the style of David Smith, for example, but with a modern twist, which is exactly how this team approaches their design.

The VMX-1 utilizes a floating latch system designed by Kyle Vallotton.

The VMX-1 has phosphor bronze washers, titanium screws and standoffs, and a floating latch system designed by Kyle Vallotton. It measure 5.25 inches closed, 9.25 open. Artwork by Zach Burcham, West Main St. Tattoos in Glasgow, Kentucky.

Right now, whichever of the two are ordering supplies in the course of their personal knifemaking businesses purchases whatever VMX needs. They split those expenses 50-50, watching the price of titanium as it fluctuates. At present, Kyle machines the profiles and handles then sends them to Rob, who likens what he receives to model car parts connected to their frames by plastic tabs. “From the sheet I surface everything flat, chamfer holes and shape the tops by hand,” he explained. He also applies any final finish, such as anodizing, and machines some internal parts. Currently, the blades go back to Kyle for hand-grinding, hollow on the belly and convex on the point. Soon unused equipment at the Vallottons’ will be heading Rob’s way so he can also do the grinding. Once all the components reach Rob’s shop, they’re ready for clean-up, assembly, packaging and shipping.

 

Blade HQ will have some VMX-1 balisongs or you can order directly from VMX Knives.

VMX Knives has built a high-end balisong that Kyle Vallotton hopes will change the way flippers think of flippers. You will find some offered for sale at Blade HQ or you can custom order yours by contacting Rob Buckley at Maverick Customs via methods listed at the bottom of this article. Tattoo art by Zach Burcham at West Main St. Tattoos in Glasgow, Kentucky.

“They are the strongest folding knives,” Rob said of balisongs. “There’s no locking failure; the pin stops it from closing.” No matter how tight tolerances are, owners will often loosen up butterfly knives for better flipping. “So it’s like a chain-link fence,” Rob said. He and Kyle are striving for a knife that is as tight as a bushings-and-washers construction can be while still allowing for smooth flipping action. In the future, they hope to offer a bearings model, as well as a limited-run high-end model.

Rob Buckley of Maverick Customs finishes the rough parts that come machined from Kyle Vallotton.

Even though Rob Buckley is in Kentucky and Kyle Vallotton is in Oregon, the men have worked out a division of labor that maximizes the strengths of each. Rob receives the parts on sheets. From there, they undergo numerous processes before they are ready to be finished, assembled and shipped.

The balisong community is an entity all to itself within the knife industry. Both Rob and Kyle acknowledge the achievements of others who started where they are now, while simultaneously carving out their own space in the market. Bladerunners Systems, which goes by BRS, started out as “flippers making flippers for flippers,” Kyle explained.

“I met the BRS boys before they became BRS,” he noted. “They are a bunch of balisong enthusiasts and great guys doing a great job.” In Kyle’s opinion BRS excels at using overlay materials that look cool and grab the attention of the crowd. “They are a big production company making a decent knife.”

“They make a great product,” Rob agreed, adding that butterfly knives made by Bali-Song Inc. (1979-1983), which became Pacific Cutlery Corp. (1983-1987), which became Benchmade (1988 to present) are well made as well. In fact, he owns a Benchmade Balisong 53 Mangus and a Spyderco Spyderfly.

VMX Knives is set to release its first round of VMX-1 balisongs in mid-November, 2017. They received 15 preorders, enough to get the project off the ground.

Kyle explained the partnership’s goals with the VMX-1. “What I have been doing and am now doing with VMX is simplifying and changing the norm,” he commented. “We are a small company making a very high-quality knife for the same price, and it’s custom-to-order.” Kyle wants to change the way flippers think about flippers. “I want to push boundaries and change things for the better. It’s what I wanted to do when I started making balis.”

It is obvious from their banter, that Rob and Kyle enjoy ribbing each other and genuinely respect what each brings to the project. The online acquaintances who developed a friendship and started a business together have also seemingly adopted each other’s families. Only Rob does not flip balisongs in front of his impressionable son, he admitted with a laugh.

Contact James Robert (Rob) Buckley, VMX Knives, 111 Corner Ave., Horse Cave, KY 42749; 270-576-4392. You can view the work of Rob on Facebook at Maverick Customs and Kyle’s work along with the work of other Vallottons at Vallotton Custom Knives.

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