A version of this article originally appeared in the Craftsmanship issue of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Death Metal.” Subscribe today
Joey Arbour is appalled. Or maybe he’s feigning it, I can’t really tell. I’ve known him for only eight hours and we’ve been drinking beer for the last five. He’s staring at me, blue eyes wide, brow furrowed. For the first time all day, there’s an uninterrupted silence. It had seemed like a reasonable enough question to ask: If you’re going to have an artist create a portrait using only beer as the paint, why choose Nicola Tesla as the subject?
Joey lowers his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, nestled in a coozie reading “A Fist Full of Fuck Yeah,” to the arm of the second-dirtiest chair in all creation. The dirtiest is to his immediate right. Finally, he blurts an answer:
“Because he’s fucking awesome!”
About this there’s no disagreement from any of the five of Joey’s employees sitting around an enormous table stacked high with empty PBR cans and rapidly filling ashtrays. In fact, the group considers Joey’s opinion of the Serbian-American inventor to be manifestly true, along with the contention that Tesla’s rival, Thomas Edison, was kind of a dick.
Other things that the crew believe to be true: if you’re going to drink and smoke, your goal should be to do so until you sound like Tom Waits; physicists suck, David Bowie was great, Hunter Thompson was the best; and that, at more than 1,000 pages, Carl Sandburg’s only novel, Remembrance Rock, is a little tedious.
Oh, and they believe in beer. And in fine, sturdy, sharp swords and knives. But as far as I can tell, none of the 10 employees of Joey’s Missoula-based company, Zombie Tools, believes in zombies or the zombie apocalypse. This despite the fact that the company, in business now for 11 years, with a dedicated following and some 15,000 blades sold, once used the tagline “Accessories for the Apocalypse.”
Also, “zombie” is right there in the name.
Truth is, even 10-year-old Joey didn’t care about zombies. Instead, he was transfixed by the massive sword he saw in the hands of a fully-inflated Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian. Joey would pull up fence posts and swing them around in pitched, imaginary backyard battles.
Shortly afterward, he “fell in love with stabbing people” (his words). Luckily, that was still mostly in the realm of fantasy. He joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a deeply nerdy national organization that splits up the U.S. into imaginary kingdoms — as depicted on a faux-medieval map with a fierce-looking sea monster destroying a ship off the coast of Oregon — and holds mock battles in full costume, with sword fights and such. It was at these SCA events that Joey discovered an interest in rapier fighting.
When he moved to Missoula in 1996 at 22 years old, he was a sword fighter with no one to sword fight. During the day he toiled away at the Missoulian newspaper. During the course of his 10-year tenure, and without any formal training, he went from an entry-level gig at the paper to a position as a graphic designer, which he followed up with five years at a local print shop. But at night he listened to crust-core bands like Neurosis and frequented dive bars. It was at just such a dive, the Flipper bar and casino, back in the year 2000, where he met a like-minded and darkly creative fellow named Maxon “Max” McCarter.
“Man, we did a lot more drinking back then,” says Joey, drinking.
Together, the two formed what they called the Drunken Jedi Pirate Circus, which mostly amounted to Joey and Max going at each other with rubber-tipped swords and bamboo sticks while wearing fencing masks and some basic body padding. But the swords were expensive, so they decided to try to make their own.
Around 2005, Joey and Max held what they called the “Giving Up Heavy Metal for Sharp Steel” sale, where Joey sold his Peavey bass and bass amp. “I could only keep a rhythm for thirty seconds,” he says. The profit from that, plus whatever Max sold (Joey can’t quite remember, explaining that “the beer and the whacks to the nog have made those years a bit of a blur.”), was enough to buy a belt grinder and the basics for sword making.
The pair constructed the “world’s most dangerous forge” in Max’s carport: a half-barrel filled with blazing hot coals attached to a shop vac running in reverse, designed to stoke the device to terrifying temperatures. They managed to not burn down the carport, and also to not make very good swords. Joey still has his first blade. It’s inside a case in the shop office, buried under a pile of Aflac pamphlets (Zombie Tools recently started offering its employees health insurance).
The duo persevered, honing their skills. Ever the fan of jocular titles, they named their blade-making operation the Bloody Dick Armory, ostensibly named after Montana’s Bloody Dick River.
“We figured we should be wrong, but we should be Montana, too,” Joey says.
The ribald double meaning was lost on no one, and the company didn’t last more than a year. “The old-timers really didn’t like that,” Joey explains. Later, the name would be changed to Thanatic Swords, a reference to Thanatos, the ancient Greek personification of death.
A longtime player in the dark arts, Max produced some local live-action horror shows — performance art by way of blood and gore. At one such event, Joey’s girlfriend lay on a table surrounded by people wearing raven masks while Max pretended to pull her heart out. (The organ was actually a buffalo heart sourced from a local butcher.) Later, they were hired to build a horror set called the Wild West Zombie Brothel. “So we had zombies on the brain,” Joey says. This was in 2007, before AMC’s The Walking Dead turned the entire American populace into mindless, slavering fans of the undead.
Along the way, the pair picked up another friend, Chris Lombardi, a sword-curious photographer for a local online news outlet. At a party in October of that year, Joey, Max and Chris began planning their new blade-making company. They weren’t interested in making reproductions of historical weapons, or fantasy swords. In a moment of clarity, they decided that if they latched onto the zombie thing, it would allow them to indulge in the dark side to which they were so clearly drawn, while also treating the whole endeavor with their characteristic lack of reverence.
They would build weapons of whatever size and shape and style they liked. They would build solid, usable blades — not wall hangings. They would be, in the parlance of blades, “battle ready.” The three men would have fun doing it. And they would drink beer.
It was the resurgence of the zombie as an entertainment and cultural trope that inspired the company’s name. It also nearly led to the founding trio’s stardom. In 2011, in the midst of zombie mania, the three founders made a pact with the devil. They signed up to film a reality television program on The Science Channel called Surviving Zombies.
“It was a real education in reality TV, which isn’t reality,” says Joey. Instead of focusing on the shop and blade making, the producers wanted the trio to build an apocalypse bunker out in the hills, which the guys didn’t know or care about. With two episodes in the can and facing the reality of shutting down the shop in favor of shooting B-rate TV, the guys quit. Or as the Zombie Tools website puts it, they had to choose between being “jerk-offs on TV” or “continuing to be jerk-offs making blades and growing our business.”
The handmade blades sold by Zombie Tools show a similar disregard for artifice. They don’t look like the cartoonish props that have come to define the niche-within-a-niche of zombie-killing weapons. (Even established blade makers like Ka-Bar produce zombie-themed knives.) Most of the weapons that rode the wave of undead obsession are pure junk, stamped from inferior metal with outlandish serrations and simulated bloodstains — a source of derision for blade aficionados.
At one point, Joey bought three such knives so that he could make a video of a Zombie Tools sword cutting the junk blades in half, but he never got around to actually doing it. Instead, they sit on a shelf in the low-ceilinged office, their blades shining like cheap chrome plating, the handles covered in loose-fitting, neon-green cording. It’s obvious even to a complete knife ignoramus that these are novelty items with an extremely limited service life, like a prize one might win at a carnival, albeit still highly dangerous in impudent hands. Their scary shapes and potential for (and glorification of) violence, even if technically only against the walking dead, led the United Kingdom to ban all so-called “zombie blades” in 2016.
By contrast, ZT’s stuff looks wicked. Their blades are unpolished. They wear a near-black mottled finish that makes them look simultaneously new and as if they’ve been slashing through hell for years. And they are heavy hunks of steel; you’ll find no fencing foils among the 22 blades in the company’s current catalog.
Weapons range in price from $185 for The Mauler, a compact knife with a radically curved, 4.5-inch blade that looks designed to cut linoleum, to The Diphos, a $650 sword with 25 inches of blunt hacking power. (The Diphos product page on ZT’s website explains the sword’s capability like this: “The Diphos could fuck some shit up, if shit were in need of fucking.”) And while every design is created by Zombie Tools, nearly all are rooted in various traditional blade styles from cultures around the world. The Mauler is inspired by the Malaysian karambit commonly used in Filipino martial arts. The Diphos is ZT’s take on an ancient Greek sword, with its characteristic swell near the tip. The shape of The Spit, a terrifying sword/spear hybrid, mimics a weapon carried by Zulu warriors, and The Kraken is similar to a Norse war axe. There are blades drawn from Bowie knives, Japanese katanas, cavalry sabres, Chinese war swords and the Nepali kukri.
Zombie Tools is a collection of craftspeople making archaic weapons by hand, ostensibly to prepare for an apocalypse that is clearly not coming, to battle a monster that does not exist.
(If there is reverence anywhere in the Zombie Tools crew, it’s for blade history, but even that reverence has its limits: when the company decided to create a short, stout blade inspired by the Japanese armor-piercing tanto knife, it of course became The Tainto.)
The brand’s wildly disparate styles and sizes are united visually by ZT’s characteristic dark finishes, and more fundamentally by the steel from which they’re made.
Steel is not a single product. It is a broad range of alloys with dramatically different characteristics. According to the World Steel Association, there are more than 3,500 varieties, and steel nerds exist the same way cast-iron nerds exist and typography nerds exist and bird-watching nerds exist.
Steel is essentially iron mixed with carbon. Varying the amount of carbon, or elemental ingredients like chromium, changes the characteristics of the finished metal — harder or softer, more or less durable or resistant to corrosion. Traditionally, steel has been classified using a numerical code that reveals the chemical makeup of the metal in question. The naming scheme, set down in America by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Iron and Steel Institute, uses the last two digits to indicate the amount of carbon: 1095 steel, for example, is a plain carbon steel with 0.95 percent carbon mixed into the iron base metal. Generally, the more carbon, the harder the steel. But add too much carbon and the steel becomes brittle.
ZT almost exclusively uses 5160 steel, which adds some chromium to the recipe to make an exceptionally stout metal, providing a long blade the flexibility it needs to spring back into shape after bending. It’s that flexibility that has given similar varieties of steel the nickname “spring steel,” since they were often used in automobile leaf springs. The company also uses a chromium-vanadium steel for its axes, but according to Joey that’s only because they can’t get 5160 steel in plates large enough.
For the first year of production, ZT cut the blade shapes by hand using a plasma cutter. It was too much work, and besides, the results weren’t up to the quality everyone wanted. So they contracted a local shop with a water jet to cut the ZT designs; this remains the only part of the sword-building process ZT doesn’t do in the four bays of a bare cinder-block building it shares with an auto mechanic and various other small and decidedly dirty hands-on businesses.
The blank — little more than a knife-shaped plaque — is first heat-treated in Bay 8, to increase the hardness of the steel. It then goes into a kiln and doesn’t come out until it reaches 1,540 degrees, at which point it’s quickly quenched in a vat of warm oil. This hardens the steel but also makes it brittle. To bring back some of the steel’s ductility (that is, the ability to bend without breaking and then return to shape), the blank goes through two rounds of tempering, which involves bringing it up to a relatively modest temperature — 450 degrees, in this case — and then allowing it to gradually cool. The edges are then ground to a smooth, 90 degree angle.
From there, it’s off to Bay 12, where Joey or one of the two other grinders, Dan Griffin and Josh Eaman, clamp the blank and use a nine-inch angle grinder to cut the bevel of the knife. This is always done by hand, and always at an angle of 19 or 20 degrees. It’s the most time-consuming step, and the one that requires the most skill. When Dan, for example, moves the heavy grinder back and forth over the blade, his speed and angle never perceptibly vary; such is the studied smoothness of the move that it appears as if he has a lateral joint in his back. (Though one look at the Wall of Shame, covered in blades gone wrong, and it’s clear that even the experienced guys at Zombie Tools screw up from time to time.) A turn at the belt grinder cleans up the bevel; another go at the grinder, now wearing a different belt, brings the blade to its ultimate sharpness.
(Bay 12 is a particular sort of hell for an uninitiated human. It is oppressively loud. Gold-orange sparks pour down from the belt sander and radiate out in a great hot disc from the angle grinder. Everything that is not painted black becomes black anyway — including, I discovered late in the day, the insides of my nostrils — thanks to a thick coat of steel dust. Steam rises from a water-filled barrel used to cool the blades between grinds. Sensibly, the guys wear hearing protection, safety glasses, respirators and heavy aprons. They might be nuts, but they’re not crazy.)
The blade then heads to Bay 11, where other employees affix the aluminum handle pieces to either side of the full tang and pin them in place. Zombie Tools uses 6160 aluminum to keep the weight of the finished product reasonable. (Also, Joey notes, “Wood is a pain in the ass.”) This is also where the company makes the Kydex thermoformed plastic sheaths that come with all Zombie Tools blades. What the material lacks in visual flair, it more than makes up for in toughness. It is, as such, the perfect material for the ZT aesthetic. (You can order a leather sheath from ZT’s website, but it will be made by a trusted third party.)
Bay 12 is a particular sort of hell for an uninitiated human.
Back to Bay 8. The blades are sprinkled with aluminum shavings and coated in ferric chloride. This acid etching gives the steel its characteristic dark gray, mottled appearance and, because it’s similar to the process of corrosion, actually gives the blade a bit of rust resistance. But, like most proper knives, a ZT blade will rust if it’s not treated correctly — that is to say, it needs to be stored clean, dry, and with a thin coat of oil. Finally, the handles are wrapped in black leather strips.
Using this process, the company’s 10 employees can finish about 150 blades every three weeks — about 2,500 blades per year. All blades are made to order and wait times fluctuate between four and 12 weeks. The blades are considered middle-ground in terms of pricing: high-end swords are generally more than $1,000 while low-end ones can be as cheap as factories in China and Pakistan can afford to pump them out. It’s a comfortable spot for ZT, which prides itself on its hand-crafted, made-in-America status. Joey and company also want people to actually use their swords and axes and knives, but absent an apocalypse or even a single verified zombie, it’s a fair question to ask what, exactly, they want their blades used for.
That’s where the beer comes in again. Maybe you saw that coming.
Zombies are notoriously easy to kill. They are slow and comically dumb. (Also, they dress very shabbily.) In most depictions, they are unable to muster the wit to use any sort of weapon. And since they’re humans stripped of their humanity, they’re not just physically easy to kill but also ethically so, not unlike the bodies that pile up in a first-person-shooter video game. They are moaning, leg-dragging props in your master-warrior fantasy. Gore without guilt.
But since actual zombies are in short supply, Zombie Tools’ tools must slice other things. Judging by the two independent ZT fan pages on Facebook, owners mostly just take pictures of their blades for others to gawk at. When not doing that, they are typically chopping tree trunks, slicing flying potatoes, taking whacks at bamboo sticks or slicing aluminum cans. Perhaps not quite as heroic as saving the planet, but it makes for a fine internet video.
In fact, that’s probably the single biggest factor in getting the Zombie Tools ethos and products in front of paying customers. ZT’s swords and knives aren’t typically sold in stores. Instead, the company sells direct from their website and from a booth at the lone blade show they attend every year. Zombie Tools, then, is a collection of craftspeople making archaic weapons, largely by hand, ostensibly to prepare for a variety of apocalypse that is clearly not coming, to battle a monster that does not exist. Yet the company relies entirely on that most modern of technologies, the internet, to market and sell its product.
Joey is appalled — and not for the last time today — that I have never seen a video that he, Max and Chris produced in 2011, called “Destroying The Deuce.” The video’s roughly six minutes contain all the essential elements of the Zombie Tools universe: a long-bladed chopper named The Deuce; beer; loud music; and the wanton destruction of items, including a pickup-truck hood, phone books, a wooden pallet, an air-hockey table, a bicycle, a cinder block, a television and a baguette. Then, with the tip of the blade in a vice, Max bends The Deuce to a cringe-worthy 90 degrees. The video finishes with Joey chopping at a concrete Jersey barrier until, after all the absurd abuse, the blade finally snaps and nearly hits Chris, manning the camera. It’s mayhem and metal.
“Man, we did a lot more drinking back then,” says Joey, drinking.
The chemistry of the crew is the easy rapport of bartenders, or at least a group of people who met at the bar while drunk.
In 2015, Max parted ways with Zombie Tools in a not-entirely-amicable break. A couple years after that, Chris took a buyout of his stake in the company. But ZT continues on in the same vein as ever, although it is, apparently, considerably more productive than it once was. The chemistry of the crew is the easy rapport of bartenders, or at least a group of people who met at the bar while drunk. Or who think that working with people who care about what they’re creating is a damn fine thing.
The entire ZT employee manual consists of 22 words stretched over four pages. Page one: Zombie Tools Employee Manuel [sic]. Page two: Don’t be a dick. Page three: Hot things are hot, sharp things are sharp. Page four: The eye of tightness never blinks.
Watching the seven men and three women go about their business — prodding each other, listening to the Beastie Boys (Thursday, the day of my visit, is throwback hip-hop day) as they roll in and out of the shop as needed — it’s obvious the group takes their work, if not themselves, seriously. They are stewards of a righteous thing, sailors aboard a pirate ship, co-conspirators. A largely self-taught pack of craftspeople who have been successful enough to support their off-kilter lifestyle by creating tools ostensibly made for what amounts to an internet meme run amok.
But it was never about the zombies, was it? It was about grabbing two fistfuls of fuck yeah in the rush of a suitably dark, fun moment in pop culture. Zombie Tools may be a company built on archaic weapons, but theirs is a uniquely modern story.
Around noon, Joey calls for an impromptu lunch, and five of us head to the nearby German-themed brew pub. The Zombie Tools folks are familiar faces. By the time we’re done, we’ve had enough beer that I wonder how Joey and the others could possibly continue working with very dangerous machines to make very sharp things.
I needn’t have worried. No work gets done that afternoon. People start congregating in Bay 9, a de facto clubhouse and company showroom. Beer continues to flow freely. The conversation veers wildly. By 6:30 p.m. I have to go, and so I do. The party shows no signs of stopping.