by Matt Welsby
The basic Bullwhip is typically made from Cowhide, Redhide, Horsehide and is at its best made from Kangaroo hide (although, for this basic example we will make it from Cowhide) and made with a 4 plait and rolled belly construction. They are easy to make and with the correct technique and hide, should last well.
SELECTING A HIDE
The hides that you buy from a leather shop or tannery are bought by the side, this is a full hide cut down the back bone from tail to the neck and should be at least 5 foot (1.5m) long and 1/8(3mm) to 1/4"(6mm) thick at the back bone. The hide you will need should be vegetable tanned and from Cowhide, Red hide (tanned cowhide thats been heavily oiled during processing and is red in colour) or Horsehide. What you will need to look for is a hide with (1) Even thickness, (2) Smooth grain with no tick marks (insect bites) (3) Flexible feel but not too soft (4) Avoid skins that stretch and with excessive puckering around edges (5) On the underside look for even thickness and avoid skins with any underside knife marks or furriness.
To go any further you will need (1) A very sharp knife, if it can't shave the hair off your arm with ease, keep sharpening. (2) Plaiting soap, you will need this if you are going to get a tight plait and a nice soft, supple whip. You can make this from equal parts of (I) Bar of soap (ii) Water (iii) Neatsfoot oil, by mixing water and shaved soap in heated pot until soap blends with water (don't boil !), then add neatsfoot, stir and let cool. (3) A piece of strong cane (any round timber will do) about 12"(300mm) in length and around 1"(25mm) in diameter for the handle. (4) Strong twine for binding. (5) A good wood carving knife. (6) a solid plank of timber (2ft.x 6"x "- 600x150x13mm) for rolling the belly and whip. Apart from this you will need a place to work, with a large table suitable for cutting on, for plaiting a door knob with a piece of lace to hang your whip on will do.
First, we must make the handle, these are the specifications, it can be either turned in a lathe or carved by hand. I strongly recommend high quality cane as it is both easy to work and doesn't tend to crack after long use like other soft woods, hard woods are OK but will require a lathe. Next, lay your hide out onto the table and have a good look at it, you will notice that the strongest part is along the back bone, this is where you will start cutting. Before you cut out the whip set, check for any flanky bits and cut off. The whip we are going to make will be about 7 foot (2.1m) long but you can adjust to any length you wish (see plan). We will start at the section near the tail and work back along the back bone towards the shoulders and make the belly first and attach to the handle, then cut the set. (1) The Belly - for the belly section, you will cut an elongated wedge shape starting from a point to a width of 1-1/2" (38mm) and 25" (626mm) long then cut another wedge from the widest point to 3/4" (19mm) and 6" (150mm) long. Next we roll and shape the belly, this is done by rubbing and working the leather while thoroughly applying plenty of plaiting soap then rolling like a piece of carpet until it is as tight as you can get it, next wrap some twine around it so it will not undo. Now give it a good roll from your plank of timber until it is perfectly round and smooth. Place the short end of your belly over the pointed end of the handle and bind as tight as possible. (2) The Set - because it is important to have no overlap where the top plait joins the handle, we must measure the circumference where you have bound the belly onto the handle, depending on the thickness of your leather it should be somewhere between 1-1/4" (32mm) and 2-1/2" (63mm), this gives us the width at which we start to cut the set, for this example we will assume 2" (50mm) is the circumference. Working from the back bone nearest the tail, make a lateral cut of 2" (50mm) and at right angles towards the front of the hide cut two 1" (25mm) lengths, this is the section you will bind to the handle later. Leaving the 1x2" (25x50mm) blank (or your circumference), you are going to cut 4 equal widths for the lace and taper all the way to 11ft.6" (3.5m) in total length. Tapering is best done by free hand, but if you are unsure use a straight edge on the straight sections and freehand around the corners and remember, the inside cuts will be shorter than the outside ones. Unless you want a really rough looking whip, it's best to trim the sides of your lace (skiving) by using a very sharp knife and with one hand holding the lace (grain side up) and the other (with knife) placed at 45 degrees ( ==\ ) on one side of the lace and trimming while walking backwards, do this to all sides of your lace (/==\) as it will ensure that the plaiting is kept nice and tight with no gaps.
PLAITING YOUR WHIP
Fold the fat end of the set over the handle where you joined the belly, make sure there is no over lap, trim if necessary and bind firmly. Begin Plaiting - heavily soap your strands and rub in well until leather feels soft and flexible. Tie some cord around the handle and attach to a door nob or similar, with the join of two laces in front of you (grain side up) and the other two directly behind (grain side down as you look at it), cross each pair over each other , that is, the front pair are crossed over each other (left over right) and the back pair the same, take the back lace on the right side and bring it over the front right lace to the left side below the other left front lace, bring the left back lace to the front by going between the two front left laces and to the right. You will have two laces in each hand with the grain side up. Now the procedure changes a little and doesn't change all the way through to the bottom of the whip, starting with the top strand on the left side we now take it behind the whip and bring it through the two strands on the right and across the front, back to the left side and to the bottom. Repeat, but from the right, take the top strand and take it behind the whip and through the middle of the two strands on the left and across the front to the bottom, work this pattern until you reach the bottom of your whip and leave about 6"(150mm) of strands unplaited. Keeping the plaiting tight is very important as with loose plaiting your whip will feel good in the beginning but will work itself loose and you will have a long strip of jelly on a stick ! The secret to good tight plaiting is to pull tight the strand you are about to work and to keep the strands close together with no gaps appearing with your plait, if in doubt, pull apart and start again !
ATTACHING THE FALL AND CRACKER
The fall is a very important part of any whip and only high quality Redhide or Cowhide should be considered (I have hides specially tanned just for the falls), as weak leather will be continually breaking and cracking causing you no end of frustration. It is truly amazing to see well made whips with absolute rubbish leather chucked on the end for a fall, for what ?, to save a lousy $20 bucks, crazy! (oh well, I feel better now). The best part of a hide to cut a fall from is along the back bone near the tail and if your hide doesn't look strong or has a furry back, I suggest you buy a high quality fall from your local leather shop. The dimensions for a good fall are 28" (700mm) and tapered for its length from 1/4" (6mm) to 1/8" (3mm) and should be almost square along its length, you can round it off by rolling under a board if you wish, at the widest end cut a small slit in the middle (length ways) and 1/4" (6mm) from the top, long enough to pass the end of your whip through. To attach fall to whip, push the whip end through the slit in the fall to about 4"(100mm), the knots used are quite simple but may require practice to get a neat appearance. With the fall and end of your whip touching each other, take a strand from the end of your whip and loop it behind the fall and pass it back to the front and through the loop, pull tight (towards end of fall), grab another strand and repeat, making sure you loop over the left over strand from previous knot, do this for all four strands and on the last completed knot, take strand and pass back through slit in fall. To make sure it is tight we now pull the fall down to fit tightly against the first knot, trim off excess strands. Final Roll - at this stage your whip will have its final shape but will look a bit rough along the plaited surface, to smooth this, it must be rolled using the board you used for the belly by putting all your weight into it and rolling the whip from bottom to top until it has smoothed out. The whip will thrash about a fair bit so be careful. The Cracker (popper) - good crackers can be made from waxed cotton, nylon twine, silk and in the old days horse hair was popular (from males only). For the sake of speed we will make one from nylon twine, get two lengths of around 24" (600mm) and put them together and place one end between your teeth, straighten to full length and at the bottom end keep rolling the twine in one direction until it starts to bunch up, with the other hand, hold the twisted twine in the middle with a pinching action and bring the other end to your mouth, while pinching the middle let go of the two ends simultaneously and the cracker will take shape, quickly tie a knot at the loose end to stop it unwinding. Place the fall through the looped end of the cracker and tie a simple looped knot with the end of the fall.
GET CRACKING !
If your whip has been hade from good quality thick hide and you have done some nice tight plaiting, you will notice that it is quite stiff and not very free flowing, this is normal and the trade mark of a well made whip that should last a long time. To make it feel supple and crack easily (don't expect too much from a 4 plait) you will have to BREAK it IN, this is done by a combination of (a) working your whip outside with an under arm motion, from your side and slowly throwing out to the front, swapping hands as you go, do this until you get a nice sharp slapping sound from the end of your whip and (b) lots of rolling with your plank of wood (you may have to do this 3 or 4 more times). There are many different ways to crack (pop) a whip and I strongly suggest you have a look at ANDREW CONWAY's BULLWHIP FAQ as it has a good cross section of whip cracks and lots of other interesting information as well.
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Copyright©1996, 1997 - Matt Welsby. Last changes Oct 1997