Cloudhammer Steelworks Custom Katana
This Cloudhammer Steelworks custom katana was sent to me by John Kang of RVA Katana, for review purposes. RVA Katana is the official distributor and rep for Coudhammer Steelworks swords in the US and is located in Richmond, Virginia, which has a storefront inside of the local East-West Wing Chun Kung Fu school. Cloudhammer Steelworks, aka Byzer, is based out of Taiwan and according to Cloudhammer’s website, their functional blades are made in Vietnam and their traditional blades made in Shanxi, China. According to their website, this katana falls under “functional”, so I assume was made in Vietnam.
From what I was told by John, most CS katana start as a base sword and would then be customized by the consumer via the website’s drop-down-menu options, or through John, so by choosing the options I received with this sword, minus the O-kissaki, it comes to $795. I was told there are no more O-kissaki models available and I’m not sure if there will be any in the future. I’m also not sure about any additional shipping fees as this was sent to me for no charge.
WARNING: There is no cutting in this review. I would have liked to but I am not able at this time.
Katana on the Cloudhammer website range from a $275 to $1500 base price and they seem to have a decent selection of steel types, polishes and hamon styles, as well as fittings and other accessories.
The katana was shipped undamaged in a form fitting styrofoam encasement, wrapped in tape and this was in a narrow cardboard box. You can watch the super exciting unboxing video here. The sword came in a simple sword bag.
Steel – W2 cable steel, differentially hardened
Overall length – 41 1/4″
Nagasa – 27 7/8″
Motohaba – 31.8 mm
Sakihaba – 23.7 mm
Motokasane – 7.4 mm
Sakikasane – 6.1 mm
Sori type – tori
Sori depth – 9/16″
Hamon – gunome-notare
Mune – iori
Tsuka length – 10 3/4″
Nakago length – 9 3/8″
Weight w/saya – 3.19 lbs
Weight w/out saya – 2.33 lbs
POB – 5 1/4″ from tsuba
Polish – “pear skin” (see below)
Ito – non-traditional leather
Aesthetic Overview and first impressions
Upon first picking it up, the sword felt on the light side. I removed the included sword bag, which is a thin and stretchy material, to reveal a fairly classic looking katana. There are dark colors in the brown leather ito and brown sageo and a pop of bright white from the samegawa and then a somewhat exciting but still subtle sparkle from the saya paint. I unsheathed the blade and took a few test swings to find the sword felt light and quick. The hamon was clearly visible in even dim lighting. Overall, not a bad looking package so far.
I did a quick visual check for damage and a fast wiggle check on the tsuba and fittings and everything was super tight.
The tsuka of the Cloudhammer katana is in ryugo shape, meaning there is a slight to deep concave curve on the ha (blade edge) and mune (spine edge) of the tsuka. I didn’t see any options to change the tsuka shape on the website.
The tsuka is approximately 10 3/4” long from top of fuchi to end of kashira and tapers from about 39.7mm width near the fuchi to 38mm at the kashira. the thickness at the fuchi is approx 30.2mm, tapering down to 29.2mm at the kashira and end knots are 35.6mm thick. It’s a little thicker than I usually prefer but not by that much and it is comfortable enough to grip, at least for short term usage.
The wood core is clean and and fits the nakago well with no movement and no apparent cracks or splits. It was on super tight so I turned to my trusty heavy mallet and wood block to slowly and carefully coax it off. It was proving difficult at first but luckily it finally gave. Upon removal, I noticed there was a bit of hard glue in a couple of spots on the nakago so I’m thinking this is part of what made it extra difficult to remove. The fuchi was also on extremely tight but I didn’t see any glue underneath so it must have just been a tight fit.
The tsuka is secured to the nakago with one black Delrin mekugi that fits snugly in the nakago-ana. This took some effort to remove as well and the end took a dent or two before it came loose. In the case of a mekugi for a production sword, tighter is better than loose.
The tsukamaki is done with brown leather in hineri-maki style, the most common tsukamaki style for katana outside of Japan. The maki is generally tight but can still be moved in various spots while the menuki do not move at all. I believe this ito is made of real leather but it is not traditionally made, it’s instead a type of strapping or leather lace.
The difference being the lace is single ply, finished on one side but raw on the other and with raw edges while traditional leather ito has the edges folded over to meet at a seam in the middle of the bottom side, effectively creating a two ply strand and eliminating the raw edges at the same time. Traditional leather ito has a more finished look and is more durable. Modern but traditionally made leather ito is also often reinforced with an imbedded plastic strip.
This leather lace feels a bit stretchy and like it might loosen over time and the raw and exposed edges can potentially become frayed and deteriorate faster than it should with use.
The wrap alternates, as it should and utilizes hishigami (paper wedges under the wrap) and the open diamonds are fairly even and well spaced. The ito looks bunched up in some areas at the base of the hishi (triangle) and overlaps a little here and there. This could be because the tsuka length wasn’t measured out correctly or the amount of stretch in the leather varied throughout the wrap, or possibly something else.
The end knots are positioned on the correct sides of the tsuka but since there were no divots carved in the tsuka core at these spots, the knots do sit higher than the rest of the maki, which is not ideal. This can be uncomfortable on your hands and can also lead to premature wear or unraveling of the knots. There is some space visible between the kashira and the ito, where ideally, you would want none or at least as little as possible.
The transition of the ito to the rims of the fuchi and kashira is level on all sides. There are a few technical mistakes here and there, as are found on most production tsuka, but these are small details I notice because I wrap a lot of tsuka and look for them specifically but they are of no real consequence for this class of sword. I did notice one slightly unsightly bump on the ha side near the fuchi. There could be shims underneath the ito here causing it, which is often the case, or it could just be the way the core was carved in this spot.
The ito passes through the kashira ito-ana incorrectly, one strand on top of the other, instead of side by side. And because there are no shitodome used to create a more finished look, there is a lot of space around it, unfortunately showing the end of the wood core.
The ito looks nice overall, with a pleasing color tone and no damage or staining or glue. Only time will tell if the tsukamaki and ito holds up well. I would personally like to see a more traditional ito used on a sword in this price range.
The samegawa is in panel form and from a decent quality skin. The nodules throughout the panels are average to large size with no apparent damage, staining or deformities.
The samegawa is the historically used raw and bleached variety and has no coloring or lacquer applied to it. It does not seem to be polished traditionally or otherwise.
The panels are not traditionally inlaid into the wood core’s surface on this tsuka, but instead glued on top of the core. This can be problematic as the adhesive used can eventually break down and allow the skin to slide and shift, especially if the ito also gets looser. This method can also cause unsightly and uneven boxy edges on the omote and ura faces. There is some space between the ito and kashira on either side and you can clearly see the bottom end of the samegawa curling up there as well as a little bit poking out at the top
The basket weave style fuchi measures 39.4mm L x 23.7mm W x 12.5mm H and is made of steel, painted black. The cast quality is med-low, showing numerous flaws and very obvious signs of grinding on the ha and mune. This is mostly hidden by the black paint and does not affect the functionality. More care needs to be taken with the finishing of fittings like this, otherwise the aesthetics of the design are diminished.
I also noticed it has a very slight taper from the tsuka side to the tsuba side, which is likely an effect of warping during the casting process or perhaps the cap was placed on the wrong side or maybe from even the grinding. Typically, if a fuchi has a taper it would be the opposite, becoming more narrow where it meets the tsuka. Otherwise, it’s thick and strong and fits on the core with no movement at all.
The kashira measures 38.5mm L x 20mm W x 13mm H and is of the same style, color and metal as the fuchi. The cast quality is better than the fuchi but was also ground heavily on the ha and mune. The kashira is on very securely and does not have any movement at all. The ito is bunched up near the kashira but is still level with the fitting and there is no uncomfortable ledge on either side.
There are no shitodome on this kashira, leaving the openings for the ito very wide and unfinished looking and showing the wood core as well. Adding shitodome, whether separate pieces or included in the mold, would give the kashira a more finished and aesthetically pleasing look, in my opinion.
The menuki are made of what looks like cast brass and are of a bamboo leaf motif. As far as I can tell, these aren’t a “matched” pair, meaning the set is made of two identical pieces instead of them having small to large differences in design between them. The ura side menuki has some casting/production flaws.
The menuki are positioned in the common style, the omote side near the fuchi and ura near the kissaki. They are relatively small and low profile, which is usually more comfortable and have a nice subtle patina to them, which I think looks nice. Overall, the menuki lack detail though, which may be a byproduct of using molds created from copies of copies.
The seppa are basic cast/stamped brass with a satin polish and show a lot of scratches. They feature a common coin edge and are sized well for the fuchi. One seppa has a burr on the edge that is very sharp, I cut my finger while inspect the sword and couldn’t figure out how until I inspected the seppa more closely later on. This can easily be ground off with a file once the seppa is removed.
This tsuba is in a mokko sukashi sea cucumber inspired design and is made of steel with a black paint or powder coating. This is a variation of a fairly common design among production katana.
Even though it’s a rather lightweight piece, the steel provides more than enough strength and protection. The fit is solid with zero movement in any direction.
The surface shows several scratches and the edges in some spots are just starting to show the metal underneath. The inside and outside edges are a bit sharp and can be uncomfortable if rubbing against your skin. I would personally file the edges down some and repaint if I were using this sword often.
This tsuba is nothing remarkable and doesn’t exactly complement the overall design but it’s not necessarily out of place or distracting either. It is adequate and functional and aesthetically neutral. It features a symmetrical design with no kozuka or kogai-ana, so there is no chance of accidentally mounting it on backwards. As with the fuchi and kashira, Ideally, I would like to see something a step up in quality for this price point but at least they’re made of steel, which is the best material for a production katana.
The habaki on this katana is made of solid cast brass with a wire brushed satin polish. It is on tightly and does not shift or move at all, in fact, it took quite some effort to remove. One thing I look for first on a production katana is the fit of the habaki, particularly to see if there are any gaps at the top or any movement and unfortunately, this habaki does have a slight gap at the top on both sides.
The blade is centered, which is good but another problem I have with it is the notch at the ha-machi. This method of seating the ha-machi is something I consider to be old school at this point since I’ve seen so many brands now producing cast habaki without this eyesore. The fragile ha-machi should be seated within the protective metal of the habaki not exposed as it is here, plus, this notch could have been cleaned up a little better before mounting.
The last issue I have with this habaki is it’s not quite wide enough for the blade, or to be more accurate, the blade wasn’t shaped quite narrow enough for the habaki, since the habaki are premade and can’t be as easily adjusted. This results in the mune of the blade sticking out slightly past the back edges of the habaki when it’s supposed to be the other way around. I’m sure nothing catastrophic will happen to the sword because of these issues but it’s just another detail we look for in a well made reproduction and especially in swords in this price range.
The saya is a standard wood model, featuring a charcoal color with a sparkling glitter effect, possibly mimicking a raden style lacquer that utilizes fragmented pieces of abalone shell imbedded in the urushi and polished to a gloss finish. The paint, or at least the top coat, seems to be thicker than average and will hopefully prove to be more resistant to dings, dents or scratches.
The koiguchi, kurikata and kojiri are all made of black horn. The koiguchi fits well with no movement or saya rattle but there is a decent amount of rough cemented glue inside which looks messy and can also scratch up the blade mune and or habaki if you’re not careful drawing the sword. Overall, the koiguchi is thick and strong and should provide good protection against the blade edge slicing through on a bad draw or from wear over time.
The saya is not particularly slender or tapered and actually only slims .4mm as you get to the kojiri but feels solid and should do a very good job protecting the blade, as is intended.
The kurikata is set in tightly with no movement and features two cast brass shitodome that are easily moveable/removable. The kurikata is adorned with a mid-level synthetic silk sageo in a muted plum or brown color and is in a standard presentation style knot.
While not all saya koiguchi need to be the same exact size as the fuchi, this one is just a few mm wider, which is not very noticeable upon first glance but obvious once you see it.
The blade is advertised to be made from W2 cable steel and is in the common shinogi-zukuri style (prominent ridgeline with distinct line separating the kissaki). The sori (blade curvature) type is tori, which means the deepest part of the curve is in the center of the blade and the depth of the sori is what I would consider slight, at 9/16″.
If there is any aesthetic benefit of using w2 cable steel, I’m not sure I’m seeing it here. I was hoping to see more detail in the surface of the steel but then again, I am not familiar with the characteristics of this metal and there also seems to be a fairly heavy acid etch, which could be obscuring things.
The nagasa measures in at 27 7/8” and while the blade isn’t the widest I’ve seen, it does measure over 31mm at the habaki, which caught my attention as soon as I unsheathed it. It’s also a fairly stout blade, starting out at 7.4mm thick and tapering a total of only 1.3mm as it gets to the kissaki where it measures 6.1mm.
This blade has very slight hira-niku (body meat) and not much ha-niku (edge meat), as far as I can tell. I checked for this within the monouchi (cutting area).
The blade is not perfectly straight but it only strays a mm or two, seemingly nearer to the kissaki end, so I can’t imagine it would negatively affect practical use. The shinogi is clearly defined and runs a mostly straight path to the yokote, wavering slightly in a couple of spots. The yokote is geometric but the line is soft and blurred and not appearing too straight on either side.
The O kissaki measures in at 65.5mm/2.57″. The shaping is mostly well done though there is one semi-flat spot on the profile I noticed and the very tip is rounded. The boshi is visible but not very crisp and seems to visually fade slightly as it reaches the tip.
There were a few little black rust spots on the kissaki, which could possibly be removed with some Mothers polish. The center line of the mune runs off to the side near the tip of the kissaki.
The gunome midare style hamon on this blade is my favorite part of the sword. It’s clearly visible, attractive, evenly applied and symmetrically close on both sides. While the gunome is not the fanciest of styles, I feel it’s bold and strong looking and gives the blade more of a presence aesthetically.
There is not much activity to see within the hamon though, which I feel is because of the polish applied. The habuchi is not very prominent but stands out more from certain angles in the right lighting, where you can see some fine nie and nioi, especially after etching was removed (see below).
As far as I know, this hamon was traditionally created by claying the blade, heating and then quenching in water. I don’t know what the hrc is and have not tested it with files.
The polish on this blade is listed as “pearskin” which I believe is also known as Nashiji. I’m definitely far from an expert on polishing but from the examples I’ve seen of Nashiji polish on other blades, mostly kitchen knives, it is more of a rustic looking texture thing than anything else. I don’t see anything on this blade that looks like a Nashiji polish to me and to be completely honest, this polish just looks like most others in this class, including a heavy acid etch.
examples of Nashiji polish
The shinogi-ji and mune are burnished to a high shine. There are a couple of minor scratches and scuffs here and there but nothing out of the norm for a typical production sword. The ji is grey and appears slightly darker than the hamon but I don’t see any grain pattern or hada present. I do feel some waves or steps as I run my fingers up and down the length of the omote and ura.
There is one “scratch” in particular that has me a little concerned. This looks like something that goes a bit deeper than surface, by the way it’s bending the light, and could possibly be quenching crack. I don’t think it would stop me from using the sword but I’d definitely keep an eye on it.
The ha is mostly sharp from the tip of the kissaki to the first few inches above the habaki, refered to as the ubu-ha or “virgin edge”. But there is a pretty large dull spot, about 2″, starting at just above the yokote, going down toward the habaki. It’s dull enough to press with my finger without injury.
Overall, the polish is good for a user sword. The hamon stands out enough to look nice on display but there’s nothing too extravagant you would be afraid to ruin it by cutting targets. It seems to have been finished with a somewhat low grit, which is more apparent along the shinogi-ji, making it look streaky. I don’t really see how this polish is any different than so many others I’ve seen in this class, I think using “pearskin” might just be utilizing a buzzword, like we see with the terribly overused “Dotanuki” label or perhaps there is confusion in the translation and pearskin in this case means something else. But then again, I am not an expert on advanced polishing techniques so it may in fact be the shining example of a pear skin polish.
I opened up a tiny window in the acid etch using some Mothers polish paste and I think I can see more interesting details more clearly than in the area it’s still etched. See what you think.
And another angle
And one more
The more I look at the unetched portion, the more I’m liking what I see. In my humble opinion, they should forgo the acid enhancement and just let the details show through.
The nakago measures 9 3/8”. It could use some more refined finishing and shaping for sure but I believe it’s closest in shape to a haagari nakago. It has some spots of surface rust and the lines are a bit wavy, the edges are somewhat sharp and the mekugi-ana has small burrs.
There is no yasurime present and there is no mei or other writing present on the nakago, other than a scribble in black marker on one side. This nakago would be considered full length. The ha and mune machi are neatly finished and almost fully aligned.
Handling, weight and balance
As soon as I lifted the sword from it’s packaging I thought this was going to be fun to cut with. It’s light enough to not be a burden to swing but stout enough to not feel like it’s too delicate and also easily maneuverable, with a pob of just over 5″. Swinging it is a pleasure and even without a hi, it makes a low but clear tachi-kaze when the angle is right.
There isn’t much niku at all but the blade isn’t so thin that I’d classify it as limited to light targets. I feel it could probably handle at least a full rolled mat pretty easily, possibly multiple mats. Depending on the heat treat, it could likely even take on harder targets such as rolled newspaper.
The blade is very evenly balanced, making it equally easy to perform a full swing, to change direction or withdraw it without straining my wrists or joints.
I have dry handled it for a couple of weeks now and have not experienced any undue strain or fatigue in my arms or hands and while the leather ito does occasionally feel like it will become slick, it has provided just enough grip when needed. Unfortunately, because of my existing back and neck issues I will not be doing any cutting or heavy swinging with this sword, I will leave that to others reviewing a Cloudhammer Steelworks katana.
Well balanced and fun to swing
Bold and clearly visible hamon
Solid furniture fit, even after disassembling/reassembling
Tsuka core is not cracked or split
Good tsuka grip
Sturdy saya with attractive finish
Good quality samegawa
Good fit in saya
Decent quality sageo
Dull spots in edge at cutting area
Mune runs off center at tip
Noticeable wavering in blade surface
Gaps, notch and exposed mune on habaki
Scratches on blade
Sharp edges on tsuba
Saya is thick and heavy
Non traditional leather ito
High end knots
Final thoughts and opinions
Overall, I’m enjoying this CHS custom katana, it’s one of those swords that’s just fun to pick up and swing. I appreciate the simplicity of the blade sugata, polish and hamon style as well as the sword’s overall understated aesthetics. It’s rugged and solid without a wiggle or creak, even when smacking the tsuka with force or shaking the blade in the saya. Again, the bold hamon stands out even in low lighting and catches the eye immediately.
The lackluster, low tier fittings, common hamon style with no visible activity, streaky polish and the numerous cosmetic flaws is a bit disappointing. Normally, this wouldn’t be much to worry about for a sword you intend to use regularly but at close to $800, I would want more than just a solid cutter or functional beater. I can find swords like this in the $200 – $500 range from many suppliers and I know that there are many good cutters out there that also have more of an aesthetic appeal, that could be had for the same price point.
Sadly, the way the economy is heading it may be sooner than later when $800 can’t buy both looks and function in a production katana but I think for now, I would still expect a little more for this price.
To answer a question I know I will get often, “how does this compare to a Z-Sey?”, well considering I just reviewed a Z-Sey for about the same price, I would have to say the Z-Sey delivered a lot more features and had fewer cosmetic issues than the CHS.
And of course, compared to a Huawei? Well, I feel Huawei would have this beat on most levels for around $300 – $600 but as we know all too well, it really doesn’t matter how good a Huawei is these days when it could take years to get a new one. I would actually give the polish aesthetics win to CHS since Huawei, despite all the other benefits, still does a very simple mirror polish.
To be frank, I can think of quite a few other brands that provide at least this level of quality, if not more, for less than the cost of this CHS custom katana. Unless it just completely outperforms others in it’s class, I feel it may be a bit too high priced for what I’m seeing. There are simply too many little issues and not enough obvious benefits to justify such a high price point, in my opinion.
I hope that the quality of the super solid construction and excellent balance and handling are something we will see with every CHS katana but I would really like to see CHS address the issues above and make an effort to reduce or even eliminate them as they continue to produce their swords in the future. In recent years, we’ve been demanding more for our money and actually seeing many makers and sellers stepping up to the plate to deliver and this has created even more competition, which ultimately leads to more choices and better bang for your buck. It’s a good time for production katana collectors and I hope to see CHS competing with the rest of them.
I really like this sword for it’s classic and rugged looks, solid build, bold hamon and exceptional balance and handling. If these swords cut as good as they feel and stand the test of time and use, this is probably a sword you’d want in your collection. If you’re picky about the aesthetic details and traditional techniques and materials, this may wind up being somewhat underwhelming.