A visit to Zladinox

A visit to Zladinox

Being the editor of European Blades Mag. sometimes brings you to interesting places. The Russian town of Zlatoust, for instance, at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Zlatoust is the cradle of the Russian steel- and blade-making industry, which in the 19th Century occupied more than 18,000 people. Zlatoust is also home of the Zladinox company, famous for its Damask. And that is the reason we went there.
Text and pictures: Bas Martens
Vladimir (right) and Yuri Gerasimov run the Zladinox company.
Right: Since the 19th Century, the Pegasus is the symbol of Zlatoust and it is found all through the city. Here, the Pegasus stands next to the city name, at one of the entrance roads.

First and foremost, I must thank Vladimir Gerasimov, his wife Svetlana and their son Yuri, for their invitation, for a princely welcome and a memorable trip.
Vladimir (58) and Yuri (33) run the Zladinox company. They showed me around Zlatoust and gave me a tour of their partner company A&R. They showed me the beautiful Museum of Local Lore, the oldest museum in the southern Urals, with a great collection of edged weapons and decorative arts on steel. We visited the Workshops of Decorative Applied Arts “Lik”, were they make ornate metal objects of the highest quality, and also produce goblins.  We went to a museum in the former Zlatoust arms factory, which now specialises in metal decorations. They had me interviewed by local television, feasted me on regional specialities (including Vladimir’s famous home-made hamburgers) and yes, of course, they also showed me the Zladinox company and its products, of which they are justly proud. So where to begin?
Well, let’s start with a bit of background.
The city of Zlatoust (pronounced Zlato-oest) is the Russian equivalent of Sheffield and Birmingham in Great-Britain, Liège in Belgium and Solingen in Germany. But maybe because of its rather isolated location, it never quite got the same reputation – although they are working on that. 
Left: The Museum of Local Lore in Zlatoust is the oldest museum in the southern Urals. It was established in
1825 and houses a wonderful collection of local craftsmanship.
Right: Zlatoust is at the feet of the Ural mountains, the geographical boundary between Europe and Asia. This
side of this sign reads ‘Europe’, the other side says Asia.
Zlatoust got its name after the Russian translation of "Chrysostom", the original Greek name for Saint John Chrysostom, because the city was founded near a church dedicated to that saint. Zlatoust became also the name of an iron-making plant founded by I.P. and V.M. Mosolovs, manufacturers from Tula, in the 1750’s. By 1769, the iron plant operated two blast furnaces, and three forge factories with twenty hammers. By the end of the Century, the plant already produced 275,000 pounds or cast iron per year.
In 1815, an arms factory was built in the settlement, with the help of master gun makers and blade smiths from Solingen and Klingenthal. With them came polishers, engravers and other craftsmen. From 1817-1847, the great Russian metallurgist Pavel Petrovich Anosov lived and worked in Zlatoust. He rediscovered the secret of bulat (Damask) steel, and from the middle of the 19th century onward, Zlatoust became the centre of production of high-quality steel, and famous for its edged weapons. Annual production of sabres is estimated to have been around 30,000, rising to two or three times as many in times of war. It is around this time that the winged  horse Pegasus became the official emblem of Zlatoust. Just as Pegasus was the bearer of Zeus’s thunderbolts, Zlatoust became the arms bearer of Russia.
Left: Zlatoust blade smiths had the habit of making two examples of special commissions. Most of these
second examples have been preserved.
Right: A suit of armour made for the young Tsar, showing the incredible quality of metal work and decorative techniques.

On the decorative side, Zlatoust became famous for its gold engravings, a process developed by Ivan Bushuev en Ivan Botarshinov in the 19th Century. The principle is that parts of a blade or metal object are partly covered and subsequently etched with acid. The etched parts can then be highlighted with gold. The technique can be used to make relatively simple ‘metal paintings’ or incredibly ornate decorations.
Left: Zlatoust has become a ‘City of Masters’, with several companies specializing in high quality metalwork and decorations. These are some examples of the Workshops of Decorative Applied Arts “Lik”.
Right: A very appropriate entrance to one of Zlatoust knife factories.

The Museum of Local Lore, established in 1825, shows many beautiful examples of this metalwork, mostly thanks to the custom of Zlatoust blade smiths of making two examples of each piece. If all went well, one piece was fitted and delivered to the client. The second example would just be a finished blade and could be kept for reference.
Among the more than 44,000 exhibits of the museum are examples of incredible craftsmanship. It has, for instance, a steel table which shows, from its feet up, all the stages of making Turkish Damask: multibar welding, twisting, and welding until the tabletop shows the final Damask pattern. A rather mysterious object is the ‘Gordian knot”. It consists of two steel bars, intertwined into a complicated knot. It was made for the Parish World Exhibition of 1900, that much is for sure, but nobody knows hòw it was made. The steel bars have a constant diameter, even inside the knot, and there are no signs of hammering or other tools.
Left: Zlatoust is proud of its history and heritage, as shown by this wonderful two-volume town history (left), the
book on the Museum of Local Lore (center), and the book on the Zlatoust arms factory. If only I could read
Right: One of the Museum mysteries. This ‘Gordian knot’ from two steel bars was made for the Paris World
Exhibition in 1900, but nobody knows how it was made.
Left: Decorative metalwork can have many shapes and sizes. This is the factory museum of one of the companies, showing anything from ‘metal paintings’ to highly decorated machine guns.
Right: Vladimir and Yuri Gerasimov in the museum of the A&R Company, with which they form a partnership. Zladinox forged the steel for the 3 meters long sword, which took almost two days of continuous work.

But let us not forget the main reason for our visit: the Zladinox Company.
Zladinox was established in 2009 by Vladimir Gerasimov, and so it celebrates its 10th anniversary. Vladimir was born and raised in Zlatoust. He comes from a family of famous metallurgists, so logically he became fascinated by steel himself. He studied metallurgy and became a teacher at the Zlatoust branch of the Chelyabinsk Polytechnic Institute were, among other things, he did research into making Bulat.
After the fall of the Soviet-Union, being a University teacher was not the best job for a man with a family. The Zlatoust steel industry, which once employed around 18,000 people, dropped to around 1,000. Vladimir initially began a company in art forging, something he occasionally still does – he made the banisters and some of the chandeliers of the local Bellmont hotel. But then, his interest in Damask and advanced production technologies led him another way, which resulted in his present company. Zladinox is now run by Vladimir and his son Yuri, also a metallurgist. A third generation is already knocking on the door: Yuri’s daughter, who is almost 7, has expressed an interest to join the company.
Left: Vladimir Gerasimov at his desk. Right: The outside of the Zladinox building, part of the A&R Company complex.
Zladinox derives its name from the ‘atmosphere resistant’ (popularly said: rustproof) Damask steel it makes. The name was an idea of German knife maker Stefan Steigerwald. “Initially the name was a difficult Russian word”, Vladimir explains. “Stefan tested our Damask. He liked the steel, but he did not like the name. So he came up with Zladinox, a combination of Zlatoust, Damask and Inox”.
The Zladinox company is housed in a two-storey building on the premises of the A&R knife making company, with which it has a partnership. The ground floor has the machinery: three furnaces (for forging, welding and tempering), two pneumatic hammers, the largest with a 450 kilo head, and a 100 tonnes press. Another room has a flat grinding machine. The first floor has a small exhibition on the different ways to make Damask, showing the difference between the methods of Zladinox, Balbach and Damasteel. It also has the offices of Vladimir and Yuri. Thanks to the constant operation of the furnaces below, they never get cold. The regular thundering sounds of the 450 kilo pneumatic hammer reminds you of the nature of the business.

A part of the Zladinox work floor. On the lower left are two of the ovens, for forging and welding. Next comes
the smaller green pneumatic hammer, and on the right is the 450 kilo large pneumatic hammer. The coal
fire is only used for tourists.
Being a company has its advantages, but also its limitations, Vladimir explains. “On the Internet you can find the most wonderful Damask patterns. For us that is not possible to make. Well, technically we can, but it would be too expensive. We produce in quantity. That makes it possible for us to guarantee our quality and to keep our prices constant.” Zladinox makes several standardised compositions, and has a number of Damask patterns: Twist, Wild, Turkish band, Big Rose, Steps and Pyramid. Both Vladimir and Yuri work on new compositions and motifs.
Left: It takes a lot of skill to use a pneumatic hammer on a piece of steel as long and thin as this.  
Right: Can you imagine: using a 450 kilo pneumatic hammer for a small correction to the dimensions
of the steel bar.
Some types of Damask steel need a twist. There is a machine for that as well.
At present, the company employs seven people. It produces roughly 10,000 kilo of Damask steel per year. This year that will only be about a third, because Zladinox has focussed more on titanium Damask. “We first tested titanium Damask seven years ago”, says Vladimir. “It has taken us some time, but now we know how to make it.”
Although knife steels are an important part of the business, Zladinox also make composite steels for pens, watches and jewellery. The steels are not the same: “Knife Damask is different. Knife makers need special properties.”
The nature of the business requires a well-organised operation. Depending on the kind of Damask, a ‘sandwich’ is made from steel plates, according to the size required. The sandwich is sealed in a steel container. The container goes into the welding furnace. During the course of the day, the package is heated, hammered and heated again, until it is finally made into a slab of Damask steel. The remains of the container are ground off, and the piece of Damask is ready for further processing.
Left: Forging a large piece of Damask steel is an elaborate process. Shown here are some of the steps. First,
a steel ‘sandwich’ is made to measurements. Right: The sandwich must be sealed in a steel container, which
is made to size from standard U-shaped components. The container is then sealed by welding.
Left: Several steel containers with different steel ‘sandwiches’ inside, almost ready for welding. A steel rod
must still be attached for manipulating the containers. Right: The container comes out of the oven for the
first time.
Left: The Damask container begins to be hammered into shape. Right: The steel block on its second run
through the hammer.
Left: When it is almost finished, the Damask block is straightened under the press. Right: And this is what
the block of Damask looks likes after welding. The remains of the steel container are clearly visible and will
be ground off.

In another process, plates of Damask steel are being cut, tempered, straightened if necessary, flat grinded on a high precision milling machine and trimmed, ready to be made into knife blades. And then there are the different shapes and sizes of Damask which have to be forged, welded, or turned.What seems like a rather chaotic workshop is in fact a well-orchestrated workflow, were everything is controlled: steel, time, temperature. And that is how it should be, Vladimir explains. Damask is not an easy product. “The main problem with Damask is ‘unwelding’, the different steels coming apart. We have control of the process to the extent that 99 % of our Damask is good”. Because of the controlled environment, not all Damask needs to be etched before it is sold. Zladinox knows what it makes.
Prior to delivery, the steel plates must be checked ...
... if necessary straightened, and then there is a lot of them.
Finally the plates are milled to make sure that they are absolutely straight.
Zladinox introduced itself to the world ten years ago, at the IWA show in Germany. Since then, father and son have travelled a lot. They visit the major European knife shows, where they have become regular and welcome exhibitors. It took some time to get known, Vladimir recalls: “Years ago I was at a small show in France. I was the only foreigner. In the evening I heard that Zladinox was the most famous French Damask.”
Much has changed since. Zladinox steels are used by many famous knife makers, such as Anthony Marfione, Stefan Steigerwald, Jean-Pierre Martin, Gudy van Poppel and others. The most difficult thing is to work for large companies, because their automated production has special requirements for the quality of steel. But Zladinox has mastered that as well. Its steels are used by Böker, Fox and Lionsteel - an indicator of the high quality of their materials. Negotiations are under way with other companies. But there is still much to be done, in part for the fun of it – Vladimir and Yuri both love to travel, and Vladimir’s travel reports on Facebook are a pleasure to read – but also to get more attention to Zladinox and the place where it all started: Zlatoust.
Next to the company, Zladinox has a little ‘theme park’, which shows the birth of steel, from the iron ore to a
finished knife. It is a popular with school children and sometimes gets a few visits per week. The watermill is
driven by electricity but the fire and forge are very real.
Right: Vladimir Gerasimov is famous for his hamburgers as well. He prepares them ‘on the shovel’.
The wonderful knives are a product of the A&R Company.
Although most of the forging is done with the pneumatic hammers, Zladinox does have an anvil, and hammers and pliers. But note the two calliper rules and the template. Dimensions are taken very seriously here.