- Whips MHW - Whips

"What to look for when buying a whip"

On this page we will try and discuss the issues concerned with buying a whip, what to look for, what not to bother with. The tips and tricks of the trade so to speak

As with all products, we must look closely at the materials used, techniques and the workmanship applied to have some idea of what we are looking at. We must also try and match the intended purpose with what type of whip construction is used as it is obvious that it is OK to buy a whip that has no internal structure if your only intended use is to hang it on a wall for decoration.

Caveat: While I am making every attempt to be independent with the contents of this page, please understand that I am influenced by my own philosophy(s) after 20 + years of making and repairing whips and I hope to explain the reasons during the course of the text below. If anything is unclear you are welcome to ask.
Matt Welsby

What to look for when buying a whip :-


While a whip can be made from many different types of materials including plastic, rubber, cotton, wool and even hemp we will concentrate on whips made from leather. Good quality leather is a truly unique product perfectly suited to the correct functioning of a whip and to the whip maker it is a material that can be worked with ease and has its known limitations and characteristics.
For budget type whips you cannot expect them to last very long and the most common type of leather you will come across will be thin chrome tanned cowhide or occasionally, chrome tanned Kangaroo. For high quality whips with both high performance characteristics and long life, chrome tanned leather should be avoided as it is stretchy, almost spring like in character and therefore is very difficult to control properly when doing multiple crack and complex stunt work. The type of tannage to look for is Bark or correctly processed Veg tanned Kangaroo leather - there are no exceptions here if high quality is your need.
How do you tell what type of tannage is used : It is very difficult to tell the difference for the untrained eye so always read the label and if in doubt ask the retailer or whip maker. If nothing is mentioned about the tannage then you can bet your bottom dollar that it is chrome tanned or it is a whip made from someone who does not really pay a lot of attention to the materials they use.
Why is Kangaroo leather preferred: To put it simply, this leather when correctly tanned is far superior to any other known leather in respect to lateral strength, flexibility, appearance and scuff resistance. I have made and seen many fine examples of Cowhide leather whips, but if it gets too dry or too wet it will break as I'm sure many of you have witnessed. If you must go for Cowhide, select a good hide of Bullock or Bull leather, these will at least give you a chance to have something that will last a bit longer.
When you are faced with looking at buying a whip which is on a rack in a store or has no label or history, the one major thing to look for in the leather is the cut edges and the hitch where the fall is joined, if you see any furriness at all on the strands this will show that the leather used was cut from the flanky part of the hide - this is very weak leather and should be avoided. Also look for scares or scab marks from insect bites as this can severely weaken the leather.
One other important aspect of the type of leather used is the way in which the leather is dyed or coloured if long life is desired then DO NOT buy a whip or leather to make one from if it has had pigmented dyes used. I can't stress this enough and I have often seen it used, but please understand this is like a thin coat of paint that sits on top of the leather and WILL NOT allow the penetration of oils you may apply over time to the actual leather, eventually severely shortening the life expectancy. The type of dye to look for is full aniline.

Techniques and Workmanship

Every time I think of this subject I often refer back to my early twenties when I had finished studying and wondering what to do with my life, so I started making whips for a few shops around the place as well as making ones for my customers. During this time it became clear that all the retailer was prepared to pay for was for anything that fitted to their profit margin and little consideration was given to the quality. To make money you eventually buckle and just make "Stuff" that looks ok, I could not stand this and removed my name from the label and eventually gave it up as what was the point of learning a craft then turning it into a weaving factory ! From that day on I have only sold direct to the people who use my whips.
The point of the above is to demonstrate that you are buying and using an object that has been made by the hands of someone who has spent a lot of time with your whip, turning a flat, two dimensional leather hide into a living, multi dimensional piece of art that has to work for a long time, on behalf of all professional whip makers please look at whips made from people who are prepared to put their "Real" name on the product and are proud to do so.
One of the most important parts of your whip is a part you cannot see from the outside, this is called the belly and comprises of a piece of rope in a budget whip to a multi layered, lead weighted, fully plaited belly in a professional quality whip that can function as a whip in its own right before the outer layer is plaited over. For a working whip used in harsh environments you should look for one that has a FULL plaited belly made from Kangaroo leather which goes all the way down to the fall, this will provide a whip with the greatest strength and the longest possible life. To do trick work etc. a whip with a three quarter plait belly is good as long as it has three or more strands carried through to the fall for strength. Avoid whips that have a single piece of thick cowhide as a core that goes the full length as this will break in time and put too much stress on the outer strands.

Lead weighting or shot loaded is a term you will come across regularly, particularly from Australian whip makers where this has been used for a long time, most professional quality whips have some form of lead weighting and there are at least 5 different ways of doing this, when done correctly this can make a significant difference to the whips handling, when done poorly all you will have is a whip that is heavier than the other with no handling benefits. There is no other way than to test a whip which claims to be lead weighted by using it, a correctly weighted whip will react very quickly to the change in hand movements and it is when doing fast, multiple crack work that its benefits will clearly show when compared to a non weighted whip. The primary purposes of lead weighting is to add weight to the whip body for better control in windy conditions and to provide a vehicle for the whip maker to more finely tune the balance of the fall out or roll out.
When looking at the outside body of the whip look at the individual strands carefully, what you are looking for are clues to the thickness of leather, with Kangaroo it should be around 1 to 2mm in thickness and have a gentle taper that goes no thinner in width than around 2 to 3mm at the fall hitch. Most whips of 12 plus plaits are hand cut from the hide so there will be slight variances in each strands regularity, but this should not be excessive. Also, check for lumps and bumps along the whip body, there should be no obvious lumps anywhere along the whips body.
The number of plaits and the width of the strands is always important when considering the whips intended use. A 12 plait whip is considered to be the beginning grade for professional quality and the plait number refers to the number of strands used. What is important here is the width of the strands not necessarily the number as I have seen some very fat whips plaited with 12 strands that have strands wider than what is used for a 6 or 8 plaiter, so some years ago I came up with "Matt's Flexibility Factor" as an instrument to gauging the flexibility of a whip. There are many other factors that influence a whips flexibility and I have a more complex formula for matching a whips characteristics to its performance requirements , but this is a good indicator to what you can actually see and where there is no other information available or offered.
Here it is:
MFF = Whips Diameter divided by Stand Width
Method: With a good pair of calipers measure several points along the whips middle third section and don't pay too much attention the last 18" (45mm) from the fall hitch as strength is more important here than flexibility. Examples:

Example (1) : A high quality 20 plait whips MFF will be:
Diameter measured at mid section = 14mm
Strand width = 3mm
MFF = 4.66 (14 / 3) - Acceptable range is around 4.0 to 5.0

Example (2) : A high quality 12 plaiter MFF will be:
Diameter measured at mid section = 14mm
Strand width = 4mm
MFF = 3.5 (14 / 4) - Acceptable range is around 2.4 to 5.0

Example (3) : A bulky 4 plait whips MFF would be:
Diameter measured at mid section = 20mm
Strand width = 14mm
MFF = 1.42 (20 / 14)

As you can see - The higher the factor number the more flexible the whips outer is.

One other important factor to look for when buying a whip is to avoid whips that have a high gloss, Leather varnish or waxy creams applied to the whips body for a high gloss finish, as all of these will prevent lubricating oils from penetrating into the leather when applied, usually when it is most needed.
Always pay particular attention to the Fall that is on the end of a whip. If poor quality leather is used here there will be no end of frustration with repairs and replacement being needed often as well as the possibility that the fall does not match the whip body, causing all sorts of handling problems. A good fall should be made from 3mm to 5mm Bullock Redhide and be gently tapered down to the cracker, there should be no blemishes on the grain side and the back should be clean and firm.
I've left one of the most important parts until last. ALWAYS check for a warranty from the whip maker or retailer, there is absolutely no excuse what so ever for a whip to have no warranty on its materials and or workmanship for at least three months from when you buy it - an excuse not to guarantee a whip is an excuse not to buy !

Special things to look for in a StockWhip

Stockwhips are quite different in their construction and handling characteristics to any other type of whip so it is worth while including some detail about what to look for with a Stockwhip.
As it is made in two distinct sections called the thong or the whip body and the handle their are separate things to look for.
With the handle, there are many different materials used ranging from fibreglass, spring steel, hard wood timber to good quality cane. In a working environment when working from horse back and travelling long distances over diverse terrain cane should be the preferred choice, as it has great flexibility characteristics PLUS, if you fall from your horse with whip in hand cane will snap clean and not create any sharp edges that may stab you or the horse. Also when transversing river crossings a cane handle will float if it comes adrift for any reason, making recovery easier. For trick work, my preferred choice would be a spring steel handle as it is very flexible and combines well with a well balanced whip body, second choice would be cane.
An important consideration for both the whip body and the handle is to make sure that at the keeper end of both pieces has reinforced keepers, this is another strip of leather inside the strip you see forming the hitch. The best stockwhips have a gentle taper and are reasonably lean in width.

Special things to look for in a Bullwhip

Other than what has already been discussed, a Bullwhip has some important individual factors to pay close attention to. This is mainly to do with the type of internal join used where the handle meets the flexible whip body. This join can be as simple as binding a bit of rope to the timber, using a pipe with a spiral spring attached, a length of tapered fibreglass, a length of steel cable to attaching a sack filled with lead shot, any of these methods are usable but, always ask what you are buying so you have some record of satisfactory of otherwise performance.
Please feel welcome to make comment on the above or you may have other considerations that you think are important enough to be covered here.
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Thanks for your Interest

* You are welcome to download and use the above information for your own personal use only, you are not permitted to copy, distribute, change or use for commercial use without the written approval of Matt Welsby.

Copyright©1996, 1997 - Matt Welsby. Last changes June 1997