by Matt Welsby
The basic Stockwhip is typically made from Cowhide, Redhide, Greenhide, Horsehide or even Kangaroo hide (although Kangaroo is usually reserved for higher quality whips) and made with a rolled belly and 4 plait 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. The hide you will need should be vegetable tanned and from Cowhide, Redhide (tanned cowhide thats been heavily oiled during processing and is red in colour), Horsehide or Greenhide (which is not tanned but fresh hide thats been salted and pegged out). 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. With Greenhide, make sure the hide is well oiled with neatsfoot or similar as it will be far too stiff and hard to work.
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 about 1ft.10" in length for the handle (4) Strong twine for binding. 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.
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. We will start at the section near the tail and work back along the back bone towards the shoulders and make the set in one piece (see plan) (1) The Belly and Keeper - for the belly section, you will cut an elongated wedge shape starting from a point to a width of 1" (25mm) and 20" (450mm) long then cut another wedge from the widest point to 3/8" (10mm) and 5" (125mm) long. Next is the keeper, from the thinnest part of the last wedge cut out until width is 1" (25mm), then cut to a length of 4" (100mm) and cut another small wedge from keeper to 5/8" (16mm) and " (13mm) long. So far, it should look like this. (2) The Whip Body - has three sections, firstly, we cut 4 strips of leather from the keeper you have just finished 5/8ths./4 (3mm) to 3/8" (10mm) each for a length of 6" (150mm), this width is then continued for a length of 8" (200mm). You should by now be getting close to the end of the back bone, to go any further you will have to start turning down towards the front of the hide and again when you cut along the belly of the hide, the trick with cutting around corners is to avoid tight curves and to realise that the inner cut will be shorter than the outside one. From your last cut we now start to tapper down the width of each strand from 3/8" (10mm) to 1/4" (6mm) for a length of 20" (450mm). For the sake of speed the next section is not tapered, we now maintain the last width of 1/4" (6mm) for a length of 54" (1350mm). Next, we taper down from 1/4" (6mm) to 1/8" (3mm) for a length of 16" (400mm) and continue that with for 10" (250mm). That's most of the cutting done and it should be approximately 11ft.6" (3.5m) in total length.
PLAITING YOUR WHIP
Before we start plaiting, the belly section that you have cut out must be turned into a nice round shape and the strands should be skived (optional) 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. Rolling the Belly - it is important to get as tight a roll as possible as a loose belly will pucker when you crack it and any hope of accuracy will be lost. Apply lots of plaiting soap to the belly (both sides) and tuck one side in and roll like a piece of carpet, get this as tight as you can and use some thread to hold it in place. Next you will need a solid plank of timber (2ft.x 6"x ") to roll over your belly on a hard surface, this will ensure that you will have a nice round belly to work with, roll until belly is perfectly round. Begin Plaiting - with a piece of lace or thin cord hooked on a convenient door knob, loop your set through with the keeper half way over the cord, you will have the belly on one side of the cord and the 4 long strands on the other. Heavily soap your strands and rub in well until leather feels soft and flexible. With the belly side facing you and the strands on the other side, divide the 4 strands so there are two strands per hand and no cross overs or tangles. To start the 4 plait round take the top strand in your left hand and cross it over towards you to the other side so it is at the bottom of the other 2 strands, next take the top strand on the right hand and cross over to left and to the bottom of the other strand, you should have the top left and right strands with the underside facing you and the bottom left and right strands with the grain side facing you. Again with the left side, we take the top strand and cross over the front to the right side and bottom, from the three strands on the right side, take the top strand under the strand directly below and over the bottom strand and across to the left side, you should now have two strands in each hand with the grain side facing you on all four strands. 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 right side we now take it behind the whip and bring it through the two strands on the left and across the front, back to the right side and to the bottom. Repeat, but from the left, take the top strand and take it behind the whip and through the middle of the two strands on the right 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 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 and loop it behind the fall and pass it back to the front and through the loop, pull tight, 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.
MAKING THE HANDLE
I suggest cane for the handle as it is strong and flexible and most importantly, it wont split under extreme pressure. A good length is about 1ft.10" in length and of a comfortable diameter. At the end you choose to be the top, cut a small recess into the cane (3/8",10mm from top) for its full circumference as this will help hold the binding in place. Cut a strip of leather 8"(200mm) long and 3/4"(20mm) wide for the keeper. Loop this over the top of the handle and make sure there is enough of a loop to fit the fattest part of your whip through easily. Next, we bind the keeper to the handle with strong binding twine, there are many methods of binding and which ever one you use, make sure it is for long binding. Start by tieing one end of the binding to something solid like a door knob or similar as the secret to good binding is to wind the handle around the twine, not the twine around the handle. With the loose end, place a short length long ways down from the groove you cut earlier and turn it at a sharp right angle to travel around the groove and overlap the first piece, wind the handle while pulling tight on the twine until the leather from the keeper is completely covered. To finish the binding we undo the end from the door knob and while holding the existing binding tight with a finger, form a bridge about an 1"(25mm) from the last bind and loosely wrap the loose end around handle, under formed bridge, towards last bind and place end under last bind, continue from last bind by wrapping the formed bridge around handle until all loose wraps are taken up, then pull the end that you placed under last bind tight and trim off. Because this is a basic Stockwhip, elaborate plaiting of the handle is not necessary but you can do a basic four plait as you did for the whip. To do this, cut 4 strands of leather to a width equal to the circumference of the handle (cumulative) and about 12"(300mm) long, place ends of strands around handle circumference at about 6"(150mm) from bottom and bind (short), do the 4 plait as you did for the whip and bind at the bottom, give a good roll to smooth off, then we are ready to attach the whip body to the handle. Luckily this part is very simple, place the keeper end of the handle through the whips keeper and place the cracker end of your whip through the handles keeper and pull tight.
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