Z-Sey Tuoyuan Katana
Z-Sey Tuoyuan Katana
I purchased this katana directly from the owner/rep of Z-Sey via personal messages on facebook. He quickly answered any questions I had, I paid for the sword on August 17th, 2022 and it was delivered to me in the US on September 9th. I have never owned or inspected a Z-Sey sword before this. I informed the seller I was going to review this sword.
The Tuoyuan katana currently retails on Z-Sey’s website for $899 USD. Keep in mind these are handmade swords and details can differ slightly from sword to sword. Please remember I am commenting on this particular sword, not necessarily the entire line or brand, your results may vary.
Warning: There is no cutting in this review. I would have liked to but I am not able at this time.
According to their website, Z-Sey have been producing swords for over 20 years and they are now offering an exclusive line of swords internationally.
The current selection of around 20 swords on their website range from usd $499 (folded steel) to over $3700 (tamahagane) with about four models from $800 to $1200 and even a few bare blades.
Swords may be modified by request for additional cost and lead time. I would recommend sending them an email to ask any questions you may have. To find out more about Z-Sey, visit their website.
The katana was shipped undamaged in a form fitting styrofoam encasement, wrapped in a green plastic mesh. The green mesh caused a little bit of a mess but unpacking was quick and easy.
There was no cloth sword bag but the entire sword was in a tubular plastic bag and the tsuka was enveloped in plastic shrink wrap.
Steel –smelted steel, unknown composition
Overall length – 41″
Nagasa – 27 5/8″
Motohaba – 31.4 mm
Sakihaba – 23.2 mm
Motokasane – 7.1 mm
Sakikasane – 5.7 mm
Sori type – tori
Sori depth – 9/16″/1.4cm
Hamon – suguha
Mune – iori
Tsuka length – 10 1/2″
Nakago length – 8 3/4″
Weight w/saya – 2.80 Lbs./1270g
Weight w/out saya – 2.31 Lbs./1048g
POB – 6 3/4″ from tsuba
Polish – “Sashikomi A”
Aesthetic Overview and first impressions
At first glance, I thought this sword was going to have koshi-sori , judging by the sharper than average tsuka angle (see more about this below) but after unsheathing it and checking, the blade is actually tori sori.
I did a quick visual check for damage and a fast wiggle check on the tsuba and fittings to see that they were tight. The overall color scheme and koshirae theme is fairly plain and simple but the sword has enough nice features overall to keep it interesting.
The blade’s polish and grain pattern were definitely what stood out most during this pre-inspection. The sword felt light but substantial.
The tsuka of the Tuoyuan Katana is in a rikko or ryugo style, meaning it has concave curves on the ha and mune side, with the narrowest portion occurring mid-length.
The tsuka is approximately 10 ½” long from top of fuchi to end of kashira and tapers from about 27mm thickness at the fuchi to 26mm near the kashira. It’s slender and nicely shaped and fits comfortably in my hands, which are large with a 9.4” span.
The angle of the tsuka coming off of the tsuba seemed more extreme at first* but as I got used to it and even placed it side by side with another Chinese made katana, I don’t really notice it as much.
I don’t find that the angle changes the way it feels when drawing or swinging but then I am not a trained practitioner, formally or otherwise.
I must have misunderstood when I was discussing this sword with Z-Sey previously but as it turns out, it seems I was told the shape of this particular tsuka is not typical for the model. I believe a few other reviewers received the same model recently so I would check those out to see what the tsuka will normally look like.
The wood core is clean and well carved and fits the nakago very well. It was tight with no movement yet I was able to remove it without the use of force or a mallet.
The tsuka is secured to the nakago with one bamboo mekugi that fits snugly in the nakago-ana. At the top of the core, under the fuchi, there are thin strips of wood glued around the edge, leading me to think that too much wood was removed initially. This is a good fix though and should last a long time with no issues.
The tsukamaki is done in brown, genuine Japanese silk tsuka-ito and is in hineri-maki style, the most common tsukamaki style for katana outside of Japan. The maki is tight but can still be moved slightly with some effort, while the menuki do not move at all.
The wrap alternates, as it should and utilizes paper hishigami (paper wedges under the wrap) but the open diamonds are small and look a little bunched up in areas. The hishi are also a bit uneven from one to another and could have been done more neatly.
The end knots are positioned on the correct sides of the tsuka but do not appear to be recessed, though they do not sit very tall so are not terribly obtrusive. On their website they claim to carve divots in the tsuka core at the kashira end, which is traditionally correct so it’s possible I just can’t see it clearly with the wrap in place (see below for more info and pics of the tsuka core).
The transition of the ito to the fuchi and kashira is level on all sides. There are a few technical mistakes here and there 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, functionally speaking.
I do like that they correctly thread the ito through the kashira’s shitodome side by side instead of the incorrect and more commonly seen one on top of the other. It’s a nice detail to see on a higher end sword.
One not so minor issue with this tsukamaki is the condition of the silk ito. While at a glance it looks in good condition but upon closer examination I found the ito was quite frayed and fuzzy in many places.
Again, this shouldn’t negatively affect the immediate functionality of the ito but it can definitely lead to premature wear and earlier than expected replacement and it’s not something I feel I should be seeing on a sword in this price range.
A little more care in wrapping and handling and this should be easily avoided. *Update: I was informed this wear on the ito is not typical, see below for more.
The samegawa is in panel form and from a decent quality skin that includes an oyatsubu, aka, emperor’s node, positioned traditionally near the kashira. The nodules throughout the rest of the panel are small to average with no apparent damage or deformities.
The samegawa is the historically used raw, bleached variety and has no coloring or lacquer applied to it. It does not seem to be polished traditionally or otherwise, which is something I have yet to see any production katana manufacturer offer (other than on the highly polished, tanned samegawa variety).
The wide panels are snugly inlaid into the wood core’s surface, as they should be and are free of any unsightly stains or glue residue, at least that are visible with the tsukamaki in place. There is no exposed wood in the corners of the hishi and no gap at the fuchi on the ura or omote side or at the kashira on either side.
The Higo style fuchi (39.8mm x 23mm) is cast in brass with gilded Sakura designs and accents on a black deeply textured background. The details are fairly crisp and clean though you can still see some minor imperfections here and there.
After seeing a few other examples of this model, including on their website, I’m pretty sure the translucent appearance of the black coloring is intentional. Z-Sey claims they are self-made fittings but I have no confirmation or proof they are an exclusive or original design. I feel they look very similar to a set sold by suppliers such as Yamato Budogu and Tozando, among others. Otherwise, it’s thick and strong and fits on the core with no movement.
The kashira (36.5mm x 18.5mm) is of the same style and metal as the fuchi and features the same sakura flower motif, texture and color scheme. The cast quality is good, without any obvious warping, disfigurement, casting lines or any other major blemishes .
I did notice that there are a couple of sharp points on the dome of the kashira, one is on the tip of one of the flower petals and one in the black textured background, which if rubbed across my skin or clothing, can catch.
The nicely detailed brass kashira shitodome are separate inserted pieces, as they should be, and are of higher-than-average quality for production fittings.
The menuki are a properly matched pair in a two-tone hachi design, cast in brass with colored plating. This is a popular design and they’re available at many repro fittings sellers. They were positioned correctly on the respective sides of the tsuka and also positioned well within the maki.
They are small and low profile, which works well with the slender and narrow tsuka. I did notice though that the tsuka example on their website for this same model features a triple Sakura menuki set instead. (see below for more info)
The seppa look cast or stamped, have a textured finish and are made of copper. They feature a common coin edge and are punched to fit tightly on the nakago. The fuchi seppa is sized very well while the one for the saya is not, the issue in this case being the size of the saya koiguchi (more on this below), not the seppa.
This tsuba is in a mokko sukashi, possibly Owari inspired design and is made of steel with a black paint or powder coating. This is a fairly common design that can be found at many repro tsuba supply shops and I’ve seen it for as low as around $15.
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 coloring has rubbed off of several spots on the outer edge and I can’t help but feel this would have looked better with a more traditional black patina or coloring applied instead of paint.
It features a symmetrical design and two kozuka-ana, so there is no chance of mounting it on backwards, which from what I’ve seen, occurs too often in the repro katana market. There are no sharp points or edges, everything has been well rounded out and the paint makes it even smoother.
This tsuba is nothing remarkable and doesn’t quite complement the overall design but it’s not necessarily out of place or distracting either. It is adequate and functional.
The habaki is made of solid cast copper and fits like a glove. It slides on with little pressure and does not move once in place. There are no gaps anywhere, there is no notch on the ha for the ha-machi, which is refreshing to see and the blade’s mune-machi is nestled comfortably in the extended walls at the mune, another feature not seen often enough.
I’m not sure if there’s a separate machi-gane soldered inside or not but if not, they’ve at least carved some sort of ledge for the Ha-machi to rest on, providing protection for this fragile part. The surface is not highly polished or otherwise decorated and it has already taken on a bit of a natural patina, though there were some fingerprints etched in the very surface. Nothing a pass with steel wool wouldn’t fix.
The saya is a standard lightweight wood model, featuring a deep red with black speckled paint design. The paint is thinly applied and won’t offer much protection and can be easily chipped, scratched or dented, though the satin finish will help prevent the buildup of fingerprints.
The koiguchi, kurikata and kojiri are all made of black horn. The koiguchi interior is neatly shaped and is properly fitted to the habaki with a friction fit on the ha and mune instead of the omote and ura.
Upon arrival, the fit was too tight to allow the habaki to be fully seated but after only a few days of acclimating to the new climate, it now fits snugly with no movement and is easily released with the push of a thumb.
The saya is slender and tapered, at least more than average, which is nice to see. There is some saya rattle down toward the kojiri but this is very common when the saya are not individually crafted for each blade.
The kurikata is set in tightly with no movement and features two brass shito-dome that are either friction fit or glued into place, either way, there is no movement. The kurikata is tied with a high quality imported synthetic silk sageo (cord tied to saya) in brown but unfortunately it doesn’t quite match the color of the ito. It is tied in a cho-musubi knot variant.
One noticeable issue with this particular saya is that the koiguchi does not align well with the fuchi. The koiguchi measures in at 43mm wide while the fuchi is only 39.8mm so this creates a break in the aesthetic flow from handle to saya.
While not all saya koiguchi need to be the same exact size as the fuchi, this one is quite a bit wider and stands out because of that. Another flaw that stands out to me is a slight profile tapering of the saya within an inch from the koiguchi.
It looks like there was an attempt to make the koiguchi end a little less wide without reshaping the rest of the saya. The saya is also a little bit thinner than the fuchi at the koiguchi, enough that I can’t help but notice when I see it from the top or bottom.
The blade is advertised to be hand forged from smelted steel, improved by Z-Sey, and is in the common shinogi-zukuri (prominent ridgeline with distinct line separating the kissaki) Sugata (style).
The nagasa measures in at 27 5/8”, making it very agile and easily maneuverable, despite it’s 7.1mm motokasane and 6 ¾” pob.
The blade is perfectly straight and the iori mune runs dead center all the way to the tip of the kissaki.
The shinogi is crisp and well defined and runs unwavering all the way to the yokote.
The yokote is geometric and is very straight, well defined and easy to see. As I mentioned earlier, I first thought this blade had koshi-sori, due to the angle of the tsuka but after carefully checking the sori, I found it is in fact tori-sori.
The chu kissaki measures in at just under 38mm.This kissaki is very well shaped with no unsightly bulges at the mitsukado, overly soft ko-shinogi or wavy fukura.
The boshi is visible but not very pronounced unless lighted from an angle. The munesaki was not left unburnished.
The suguha style hamon on this blade is about a ¼” wide and fairly straight and even, until it gets within the monouchi, where it then flares slightly for a few inches. It is equally executed from side to side and ends at the kissaki in a ko-maru boshi.
There is not much activity to see within the hamon, possibly due to the type of polish, though there is slightly visible nie yet I can’t easily see nioi. The habuchi is not very prominent either except from certain angles in the right lighting.
There are one or two small areas within the hamon, near the ha where you can see a crystal-like formation. I asked an expert bladesmith about this and I was told that in his opinion it could be one of a number of things, including being a byproduct of crucible steel or of not having soaked the steel long enough to allow absorption of the extra carbon into solution, among other possibilities. None of this is confirmed.
This hamon was traditionally created by claying the blade, heating to red hot and then quenching in water, giving the cutting edge an advertised 56hrc. I have not tested the hrc myself.
The polish on this blade is listed as Z-Sey’s sashikomi A, which is not their highest level of polish offered. Whether this is actually an example of keisho polishing instead of sashikomi, or even perhaps a hybrid of the two (or something else), is up for debate which I’ll leave to those more knowledgeable on this topic than myself. The ji has a more satin appearance while the shinogi, shinogi-ji and mune have a more reflective burnish. The grain pattern of this steel is quite interesting and in my opinion is most similar looking to either nashiji or konuka hada found on some Japanese made blades, like tight and tiny static on a tv screen.
The ha is very sharp from the tip of the kissaki to the first few inches above the habaki, refered to as the ubu-ha or “virgin edge”. I detected no obvious dull spots or micro nicks.
I did however find a few light surface scratches on the burnished shinogi ji and was told that is because this blade features the sashikomi A polish instead of the higher-ranking polishes offered, with which they take more care. I wasn’t expecting perfection for this price, so I found this understandable.
The scratches are very light, only visible from certain angles and could possibly be removed using a fine polishing paste. The ha and mune machi are aligned and very cleanly shaped. Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the blade geometry, hamon and polish.
The nakago measures 8 ¾” from the bottom of the habaki and is in what I believe is a ha agari kuri jiri shape. It is free and clear of any rust and all the edges have been chamfered and smoothed. It features a single mekugi-ana, which is also free of sharp edges or burrs on either side.
The takanoha yasurime, which is the feather-like pattern of decorative file marks we see on the flats of the nakago, was done very neatly. The flat planes are even and clearly defined. The nakago is within 2″ of the tsuka length so is considered full length. There is no mei or other writing present on the nakago.
Handling, weight and balance
As I mentioned earlier, I feel this sword is fast and easily maneuverable and comfortable to use, at least for short periods. Because of the stout blade, slender tsuka and sukashi style tsuba, there is noticeable blade presence but because of its shorter length, this would likely translate into a quick and trackable sword with some added power in the cut, depending on your height and preference.
The blade is balanced toward the tip and sometimes feels a little heavier than the actual weight would suggest but again, I feel this would only aid in the cut. Because of this slightly forward balance, I would probably prefer this sword for cutting more than for iai.
I have dry handled it for a week now and have not yet experienced any undue strain or fatigue in my arms or hands and the real silk ito makes it even more enjoyable. 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 Matthew Jensen in his upcoming review of a similar Z-Sey katana.
Impressive polish and well-defined geometry
Interesting grain pattern
Good fit & finish
Genuine silk ito
Good quality samegawa
Great fitting habaki
Good fit in saya
Quality synthetic silk sageo
Wide and misaligned saya koiguchi
Sharp points on kashira
Light scratches on blade
Painted/powder coated tsuba
Polish partially obscures some details
Thin paint on saya
No sword bag
Final thoughts and opinions
Overall, I’m happy with the Tuoyuan Katana from Z-Sey. It has checked off several important boxes for me, from the blade’s crisp lines and polish to the solid fit & finish and general craftsmanship of the furniture. I personally look at most production swords with the intent of eventually modifying them so furniture quality is something I appreciate, along with a well fitted habaki and of course, a blade I feel is worth building on.
Elements such as the slightly generic fittings and thin saya lacquer don’t concern me as much because I will replace the fittings and the thin paint will make it easier for me to refinish the saya. For someone wanting a more durable lacquer or more unique fittings as is, you may want to ask if there is an available upgrade.
I really like and prefer the angled shaping of the nakago and tsuka, I think it will look nice in a Tensho inspired customization at some point down the line.
At the nine-hundred-dollar price point, I feel this sword is impressive looking enough to stand out from the crowd but is not so overly fancy that I would hesitate to cut with it. It reminds me of some of the Kaneie katana models that featured well shaped and constructed furniture, decent quality cast fittings and an above average looking polish, though the Tuoyuan is less expensive than the Kaneie were many years ago. I would like a less expensive sword that looked this nice but I also understand that quality polishing takes time and skill and that would obviously cost more.
I think this sword would make a good first step into the world of higher tier production katana. I feel this model would be suitable for display as well as cutting and also to study the qualities of a differentially hardened blade.
I would like to see Z-Sey address some of the issues I mentioned as I think they would make a noticeable difference yet are easy to correct without spending too much more time and effort. From what I’ve been seeing on their facebook page and youtube channel, they do seem interested in improving their product and I look forward to seeing what they will offer in the months and years to come.
I think people would appreciate seeing more aesthetically cohesive and meaningful themes that would really set these swords apart from the masses, possibly even including some historically specific combinations of blade Sugata and koshirae style.
So far there hasn’t been much feedback on the cutting ability and durability of Z-Sey katana and I apologize that I was not able to provide any myself. This is obviously an important factor since if the blade can’t do well what it was designed to do, it matters much less how nice it looks. Again, hopefully we will learn more about this after Mr. Jensen and others take it out for a cutting session or two.
You know I couldn’t let this review wrap up before I took a look “under the hood” ;) You won’t see anyone else doing this in their review, lol!
I am happy to report that there were no cracks or splits anywhere on the tsuka core and the wood is clean and of good quality. There are a few shims present to help smooth the tsukamaki but this is considered part of typical tsuka shitaji construction.
There is some staining showing through on the samegawa panels but this did not show with the tsuka wrapped. Staining like this is preventable by taking more care in the initial prep.
I can now see that a recess was carved in the ura side near the kashira to allow the ura end knot to sit lower, as advertised, but I can’t really see that the same was done on the omote side. Again, the knots do sit pretty low as is so it’s nothing to really be concerned about.
Typical “fly tape” adhesive strips were used on the ha and mune to hold the ito in place instead of the more traditional kusune pine pitch.
* I was contacted by Z-Sey to let me know that they will address the issues I pointed out, including the angle of the tsuka, sharp points on the kashira and the alignment and size of the saya koiguchi.
I was assured these will be improved upon for future production. The hachi menuki will now be used as a stock item instead of the triple sakura and they will also be upgrading the tsuba. Because of the minor issues I found with my sword, I was offered a coupon good for a future purchase.
I was not paid or compensated in any way to write or publish this review. The opinions above are mine, the photos were taken by me and everything contained within is property of Cottontail Customs 2022. Do not use, copy or republish any content, information or photos without express consent.