A cracked tsuka (Japanese sword handle) is probably the most commonly seen and most complained about issue that arises in the world of production (i.e. non custom made) Katana. And while it is more common in the sub US$300 end of the market, it is not unheard of at the higher levels of non-custom made swords either, especially if the focus is on the blade as the assembly of the fittings, being largely invisible, is often not taken as seriously at the forge..
Essentially the problem occurs because a traditional Japanese sword has the tsuka custom made to fit the exact shape of the individual tang by a specialist carpenter. Unfortunately, this kind of workmanship can easily cost several times the price of the kind of swords we typically review on SBG...
Obviously then, to keep the price down to a reasonable level, some compromise needs to be made. This is typically done by taking a pre-making 'one size fits all tsuka' and then hammering the last few inches on to the nagako (tang), which if it just a little too tightly fitted can cause a cracked tsuka as seen below in an Oni Forge Bujin Katana.
It has also been suggested that the percentage of water in the wood changes as the swords are shipped overseas to the US, especially if the wood is not cured properly. Likely it is a combination of these two factors.
Unfortunately, the problem with cracked tsuka is not limited to poor assembly methods but also can occur as a result of ham fisted or inexperienced dis-assembly techniques.
Often the tsuka of production Katana is on extremely tightly, and if the tsuka is not split when it was put on, it can often be destroyed taking the darned thing apart...
To quote Sean Stonebridge from SFI:
Strip-down should only be done if one can be certain of being capable
of doing without causing damage whilst also knowing how to correctly
replace damaged parts. It can be quite surprising just how many people
blame manufacturing flaws when they discover faults, without realizing
poor strip-down technique can lead to virtually identical
breakages/flaws. This aspect can prove just as problematical as any
manufacture flaw, or sword usage issues.
SOURCE: Sword Forum International
The correct way to disassemble a tight fitting tsuka is by using a specialized tool called a Nagako Nuki, which you can make or pick up online for around $30 (direct from Japan) here: http://www.ksky.ne.jp/~sumie99/tools.html
This is MUCH preferred than the old 'rubber mallet' method, which can and often does CAUSE a cracked tsuka when trying to check for one!
Yes, sometimes actually taking a sword apart for inspection can do more harm than good...
Regardless of how it comes about, the concern is that swords with an undetected cracked wooden handle CAN potentially fail suddenly and dramatically in use.
At least in theory...
However there is another school of thought that, as long as the rest of the fittings are in good condition, it is more of a cosmetic issue than a truly fatal flaw. To quote David Buck from SFI:
Honestly I have had plenty of swords with cracked tsuka. As long as
you have a fuchi and a kashira and most importantly a tight wrap you
really have nothing to worry about in my opinion. The tsuka won't break
due to how a tsuka is on the nakago. The excellent design of how the
pressure is around the tsuka, inside the tsuka, plus you have two steel
rings (the F/K) holding the ends from "splitting". I would not worry so
much about it splitting or breaking. It just doesn't look nice with a
SOURCE: Sword Forum International
In reality, there are no verified reports of a sword actually failing in use soley from a cracked tsuka core. Indeed, the most common catastrophic event likely to befall a Katana is blade failure (breakage) or user error (losing your grip).
That said, it's obvious that ideally all components should be in the best condition possible because even the remotest chance of an unexpected launching of 3 long razor sharp missile is obviously a serious safety concern!!
So let's err on the side of caution...
As I mentioned, cracked Tsuka have been reported on all production swords at all price levels from Hanwei, Dynasty Forge, Oni Forge, Masahiro, Musashi, Ryumon, Cheness Cutlery you name it no production sword maker is immune (though of course the incidences of cracked tsuka are MUCH higher for swords under the US$300 mark due to the volume of swords being made).
Indeed, this issue is only a mute point for swords that have had the handle epoxied to the tang - such as some Musashi swords, the Hanweis PK and several others. (Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that pretty much ALL production swords, especially the lower priced ones, SHOULD be epoxied before they leave the forge for safety reasons!!).
As it is a largely unavoidable situation and something that is very much a luck of the draw kind of situation, if you end up with a cracked tsuka you can either:
A) Fill the tsuka with epoxy and stick the sucker on once and for all (cheapest, easiest option).
B) Have the sword remounted by a professional (most expensive option)
C) Make a new tsuka yourself.
D) Buy a high end blade.
Option A is pretty self explanatory.
Option B can be expensive, but also very rewarding transforming an ordinary production sword into a one of a kind custom piece. You can find some excellent resources for this, as well as links to places that sell supplies and free DIY instructional materials for option C towards the bottom of this review of the Hanwei PK Elite.
In a perfect world, all affordable production swords would be manufactured like modern day firearms on an assembly line with exacting tolerances and high tech QC. Unfortunately though, the demand for swords (being a boutique niche industry) is simply not high enough to justify the huge expenses that this kind of manufacturing operation.
Personally, if it were up to me I would have all production level tsuka either made from fibreglass reinforced plastics like Zytel or at the very least, sealed in with a generous amount of epoxy before they leave the forge.
Neither of these two methods are of course traditional, but unless you are willing to invest in something like the official SBG Katana line (which start at around $350) a cracked tsuka is a distinct possibility.
Until the day that manufacturers start to implement the above changes to the swords construction, it is always best to be overly cautious rather than too confident. After all, even though the chances of a cracked tsuka actually causing the sword to come apart in your hands under normal usase is infinitesimally small and hasn't happened yet - you don't want to be the first one to experience it!
I hope this information on cracked tsuka has been helpful. To return to a Beginners Guide to Authentic Japanese Swords from Cracked Tsuka: The Scourge of Production Swords, click here