Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Zombie Tools

by Angela Rose on September 10, 2016, 08:11 am MDT

www.zombietools.net

Missoula, Montana

Founded: 2007

Privately owned

Employees: 8

Co-founders Chris Lombardi and Joey Arbour combine the ancient art of blade making with modern zombie culture to create post-apocalyptic masterpieces of destruction.

Bold, burly, and decidedly badass, Zombie Tools' limited-edition bladed weapons rival the beauty of historical knives and swords found in museums around the world yet remain durable, fully functional and surprisingly affordable. From smaller weapons like The Mauler, based on the Malaysian karambit, an ancient agricultural tool, to larger ones including the Apokatana, a tactical katana, and The Diphos, a double-edged sword with a 25-inch blade, the constantly evolving lineup is as popular with self-described nerds and geeks as it is with proactive survivalists and Hollywood producers.

"We stepped into a big hole in the market," Lombardi explains when describing the company's inspiration. "Before we came along you had two options if you wanted a sword.  You could buy worthless crap from China or Pakistan for $50 or pay a master craftsman to make you a unique piece for $3,000 to $10,000. We split the difference, coming in with durable blades that you can actually use at a price range that is much more affordable than custom."

Self-taught blade makers and medieval sword fighters with a penchant for zombie lore, Lombardi, Arbour and their team complete every step of their production process -- from design to metallurgy -- in a 4,000-square-foot facility where creativity and originality reign supreme. "One of the reasons we decided to combine zombie culture with blade making is because it allowed us to break free from expectations and traditions and do whatever we wanted as far as design and aesthetics," Lombardi explains. "We take inspiration from blade cultures all around the world, but we've also just made some up out of our imagination. We've basically created our own world of blade design."

Every piece is created using a mix of technology and traditional blade making methods, beginning with a sketch entered into a 2D design program. "We'll print those out and make a cardboard version so we can get a feel for the dimensions of the blade and how it will look in the hand," Lombardi says. "Then we'll have some prototype shapes cut. We cycle the designs through various prototypes until we get one that feels right."

Zombie Tools forges between 200 and 250 pieces each month with every blade made to order from U.S.-sourced materials. Sales have held steady, even through the recession, and Lombardi expects them to go up this year.  "We'll be introducing some smaller blades and knives for everyday and hunting use," he says. "People have been asking us for these for years and we're finally getting around to it. And because the price point is going to be lower, we'll probably sell a bunch of those."

Challenges: "People are our biggest challenge," says Lombardi. "It takes a lot of skill to complete many of the steps in our process, and it takes a lot of time and expense to train new employees. We almost always have to start from scratch. Combine that with the fact that this work is brutally hard on the body and it can be tough to find the right fit and keep people happy." 

Opportunities: Lombardi sees smaller knives as a potentially large growth area for the company. "People love our stuff but they sometimes have a hard time justifying the expense, particularly to their spouses," he says with a laugh. "That should be easier if we give them something they can carry and use every day. That's why we're exploring the smaller knife world right now." 

Needs: Zombie Tool's rented facility does not have the three-phase electric power required to run larger machines, preventing them from investing in bigger, better technology that could increase productivity. "We either need to convince the city to get us this power or pay for it ourselves," Lombardi says. "But that would be an $80,000 investment in a building we don't own. We really need our own space and three-phase power so we can get some of these bigger machines."

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