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How to Make a Bullwhip

Bullwhip 2010

My Whip Story
originally posted April 14, 2010

I first owned an Australian kangaroo hide bullwhip back in the mid seventies.  At the time I was an active member of the Thunderbird Fast Draw club, which met on Sundays at a local indoor range and turned the air blue with black powder smoke.  We had Bob Mernickle, the world champion at double balloons, in the club.  He could draw a single action pistol and fire two rounds, breaking two balloons ten feet apart, in twenty-two one hundredth of a second.  It takes about fifteen one hundredths of a second to blink your eyes, so Bob was fast. 
     Guys like Bob paid a lot of attention to their guns, which were altered for fast draw with aluminum barrels and cylinders and would probably blow up if a real round was put through them.  Bob would sit for hours, watching television, cleaning and polishing his gun.  A request to handle or inspect Bob's gun would be met with a cold refusal, as if you had asked to fondle something more intimate than a cold piece of steel and aluminum.
     On my first visit to the club with the whip, Bob asked if he could try it.  We went out on the driveway behind the clubhouse.  Bob drew his hand back and then jerked it forward, which is not the smooth motion one makes to get the whip to crack.  The whip responded by picking his gun up out of his holster and dropping it on the gravel driveway.  I don't think he could have done that on purpose if he tried for a month.
     That should give you some idea of how tricky a bullwhip can be, and it explains why I'll demonstrate for my students, but none of them get to give it a try.  My new whip could take out an eye with no trouble at all.

My New Hobby (As if I need another one!)
originally posted March 02, 2010

Back in China from Australia

This big red kangaroo can do 70 km/hour in a panic.  I don't think he panics much though.

Fast Forward

Ruth and I are on a fast. Eating no food at all.  Just water.  This is nearing the end of our third day.  I haven't done a fast for many years.  I think my last one was in the early eighties and lasted for twelve days.  For this one I'm aiming for five or six days, because we start teaching on Monday.
Why a fast?  We sent an email to Bernie, our Australian host, saying that without his cooking it just didn't seem worth our time to eat.  This is almost true.  But after a holiday spent eating and drinking quite freely, we both feel like we need to detoxify and change our eating habits.
How hard is it to fast?  So far not hard at all.  I had a bad headache yesterday, but today I'm feeling pretty good, if a bit low energy.  Ruth and I both did the morning workouts on the elliptical trainer and though our calorie count is dropping, we're still hanging in for half an hour.

I'm hoping to become a shadow of my former self.  This was my shadow under the bright Australian sun.

What am I hoping to achieve?  A bit of belly loss would be nice, but I know that it will come back instantly once I start eating again.  To lose fat for good takes a dietary and lifestyle change.  So really we're out to change our eating habits. When we come off this fast, we want to eat smaller portions, with a higher percentage of vegetables and less meat.  I'm tempted to go vegan, but I don't think I'm quite ready for that.  One thing I know for sure, I don't want to reward myself for fasting by going on a binge when it's over.  I have an investment in this.

I returned from Australia with a new hobby.  Don't laugh.  Or go ahead and laugh if you want to - I'm not afraid of being absurd.  Here's the slightly embarrassing thing: I'm learning how to make whips, specifically the wonderful bullwhips for which Australia is famous. 
     You may not know this, but any time you see a whip in a movie, it's an Australian whip.  Indiana Jones carried an Australian whip.  I bought one in the late seventies, and didn't realize how good it is until I got looking for a new one in Australia.  My old whip is a cracker, a thing of beauty.  But it is old.  I wanted a new one, but couldn't find what I liked on this short trip to Australia.  Then I realized I'd rather learn how to make one myself.  So here goes.

Two kangaroo hides and a strip of cow leather, the start of my new hobby.

I bought these two kangaroo skins from a leather dealer in Melbourne.  Kangaroo leather is amazingly strong.  I cut a strand only an eighth of an inch wide off these hides and couldn't break it with my hands.  Neither could anybody else I handed it to.

 I also bought a strand cutter.  So below you see my very first attempt at plaiting eight and sixteen strands.

My first 8 and 16 strand plaits.  A humble beginning, but it took some time to figure it out and it's a start.

It seems I'll be able to make something that looks a lot like an Australian bullwhip.  The trick is going to be building the belly, the core of the whip that determines its handling characteristics.  That is going to take some research, and probably a failure or two.

Whipping it Into Shape
originally posted March 16, 2010 

The whip making project has been soaking up my spare time this past week.  It's been a great adventure.  I now have an email buddy in Australia who is an experienced whip maker.  He's been sending me tips and photographs of his work.  I've been making my first bullwhip from the kangaroo hides I bought down under.

The bullwhip belly, eight strands over a bolster over four strands.  Still to come, another bolster and sixteen strands. My improvised lace cutter.  The first section of the first five strands successfully cut at 3mm width.
There's a lot more to an Australian bullwhip than meets the eye.  Mine will be five layers - a four strand plaited core, a bolster, an eight strand plaited belly, a second bolster, and finally a sixteen strand plaited overlay.  It's fun to do something with my hands again.

One formula for a whip called for a lead shot loaded belly, but  I can't find lead shot in Wuxi, though I'm sure it must be here someplace. Another instruction called for an eight inch bridge spike to start things off, but I couldn't find one of those either and settled on a long bolt as a substitute.  It took a ride to the 招商场 (zhāo shāng chǎng - attract business market") to find something as common as a C-clamp.  There doesn't seem to be a do it yourself tradition in China, and tools that are very common in Canadian hardware stores are hard to find here.  I'm planning to post the whole whip making process once it is completed.  More on this later. 

Whipping Along
originally posted March 27, 2010

I'm making progress on the bullwhip project, but it's certainly been tedious.  There's a lot more to an Australian bullwhip than meets the eye.  The one I'm making has five layers - a core of four strand plaited kangaroo leather, covered by a bolster (a solid leather wrap), covered by an eight strand plaited belly, covered by a second bolster, and finally the sixteen strand overlay.  Whew.  Its been a steep learning curve.

Tedious.  That's what a good hobby is all about.

I've plaited the transition from the over one under one handle pattern to the under two over two thong pattern at least five times.  Three times because I wasn't happy with where it ended up, and a couple of times more because I made a mistake and had to undo it all.  No matter.  This hobby is pretty much over when this whip is finished, at least until I can afford some more kangaroo leather.  So there's no need to rush.  Come to think of it, there's no need for a bullwhip either.  I certainly am subject to strange obsessions and compulsions. 

Just getting started with the sixteen strand overlay.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China No, the dog's not dead.  She just sleeps like that sometimes.
I just knew that ring on our ceiling would come in handy someday.

I think the whip is going to be a thing of beauty.  At least it looks good so far.

Bullwhip 2010 finished.

The whip is finished, and it serves the only possible purpose a whip can serve for me in this day and age,  since I don't have a bull to whip and am not attracted to S&M.  My new bullwhip makes a great demonstration prop for a discussion of acoustics.  Last week I promised my classes that I would break the sound barrier, and that's what I've been doing.

On the board, the subject is fast draw and acoustics.  The students have their heads down, playing a game called "Talk About the Past".  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Double click on the picture above to see the demonstration of breaking the sound barrier.

The scobie hitch on the ball of my new bullwhip.  Slower to tie than a Turk's-head, but totally secure.  The finished bullwhip, now only of use to introduce a discussion of acoustics.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
The ball at the end of the handle is now a scobie hitch.   I liked the look of the Turk's-head better.  But with the wrist strap coming out on each side, a Turk's-head turned out to be impossible to balance and tighten. It would come off for sure.  The scobie hitch is on for good.

Whip Report

The bull whip is essentially finished.  It came out at ten and a third feet, not counting the fall and popper.  I want to rework the Turk's-heads on the handle.  Also, the leather for the fall turned out to be too brittle.  Two cracks and the popper would break off.  I've replaced the cow hide fall you see in this picture with a kangaroo hide fall, but I'd like to eventually find something thicker.

My first attempt at whip making, finished.  Now I can break the sound barrier.

I can now demonstrate my ability to break the sound barrier and everybody seems to be impressed with the workmanship.  Making this whip turned out to be more difficult and time consuming than I expected, but isn't that always the way it goes.  Such arrogance on my part to think that I can match the work of a professional who has spent years learning a craft.  I think I came close though.  Now it seems I'll have to make a second whip, just to make use of everything I learned making this one.  That will have to wait until my plaiting induced tendonitis dies down and I get a couple more kangaroo hides from Australia.
     I'm going to write up the whole process soon, and maybe send that in to a how-to site.

Bullwhip 2011
Originally posted May 07, 2011

I've been building my second bullwhip.  Our Australian friend, Marion, brought me back two beautiful kangaroo hides when she returned to Wuxi this past October.  Now I'm cutting lace and trying to duplicate the whip I bought in Seattle way back in 1974.  My excuse was that I needed a prop for a western I wanted to make, but really I want to play with a good bullwhip.  I've come to appreciate what a great bullwhip that one is.  Though very old now, with a couple of broken strands, it's still tight and solid and the kangaroo hide is still looking good.
     You can read in the comments last month a question from a student, asking me why I would make a bullwhip.  "Are you a farm hand or a maniac?" the student asks.  Maybe a bit of both.  I've been interested in bullwhips since growing up on the adventures of Lash LaRue, a major cowboy star back in the fifties.  He used his whip not so much as a weapon or to inflict pain, but to disarm the bad guy, taking the gun out of his hand.  He also was one of the most romantic of cowboys, and I remember one scene in which he lounged in a meadow with a pretty woman and used his whip to pick her a flower.  My kind of cowboy hero.
     Despite the current association of whips with the S&M scene, they are legitimate ranch tools and can be very useful.  But they are also fun to play with, and the only way I know of to break the sound barrier without owning a jet airplane.  That's what makes the bang when you crack a whip.  The tip actually travels faster than the speed of sound.

Picture:  The beginnings of my second bullwhip. It has a steel core inside a bamboo cover, with four ply braiding over the head to make sure it all stays together.  No less work than the first one.  Picture:  The new whip takes shape.  The belly is now complete and I'm cutting lace for the overlay.
The new whip is taking shape, and promises to be an improvement over last year's model.  But no easier to make

As part of this effort, I needed to find sheep fat from which to make plaiting soap.  One would think that this would be easy to find in a city where every second street corner has barbeque lamb on skewers. Not so.  The meat of the people in China is pork, and that was all we found in this huge meat market, except for one large and very expensive mutton roast one of the vendors had in his freezer. We'll be eating Scotch broth for lunch for weeks, but I did manage to render down enough fat to make my plaiting soap.  I saved half of it to make the beeswax leather dressing, but now I only have a quarter of it because GouGou found it in my office and what dog could resist a feast of sheep fat?

Picture:  We discovered a huge meat market near the temple market in downtown Wuxi.  Pork everywhere, and only one very expensive mutton roast to be found.  Wuxi, China  Picture:  A pig's face in the meat market.  The kind of thing that foreigners find hideous, like "Silence of the Lambs" has come to the world of pork.  Wuxi, China

Bullwhip Progress
originally posted May 19, 2011

Here's the new bullwhip with the belly complete and the handle platted, with my old whip, the one I'm attempting to duplicate, for comparison.  I've got the handle just a bit thicker than the old whip, and I'm not sure I'm happy about that.  But aside from that it's looking good.

Picture:  The whip I bought in 1974, and the one I'm making with the belly complete and the handle platted.  Wuxi, China

As you can see, the new whip is coming along. 

Picture:  It can be very handy to have a strong ring built into the ceiling, a lucky part of our apartment.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China  Picture:  Platting the overlay of my new bullship.  The white is platting soap, very necessary to get a tight weave.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
                                                                                                                          - Ruth Anderson photos.

Bullwhip 2011 Finished
originally posted May 29, 2011

I wanted to duplicate the whip I bought from an Australian importer in Seattle in 1974, but I really didn't know how long I needed the strands to be to make a twelve foot whip.  Turns out I played it too safe, and the new whip comes out at a whopping sixteen feet from the butt to the start of the fall, which is how a bullwhip is measured. 

Picture: The new bullwhip is finished, a whopping sixteen feet long. Picture:  The Turk's head knot on the butt of the new whip cost me many hours of effort.  Now I could tie it in ten minutes. Picture:  The Turk's head knot marking the end of the whip handle.  The white in the cracks is leather dressing, and it takes time to remove it or work it in.  It should be coloured a light brown.  I'll know better next time.
The five part four bight Turk's head knob cost me days of frustration before I figured out how to tie it and get it tight. I've left the tag ends on it for the moment, because I may want to give it one last tightening, but  it's never coming loose now.  The white spots are the leather dressing I mixed up yesterday - tallow, glycerin and bees wax.  It will disappear as soon as I start handling the whip, but I think I should add some colour for next time.  Maybe I can pick up some paint pigment this summer.

Sixteen feet is the longest whip I've ever handled.  My first attempts to crack it were a complete failure, and I thought I would have to shorten it to something more manageable.  This confirmed my opinion that Lash LaRue, my childhood cowboy hero, did not swing an eighteen foot whip.  Pure Hollywood exaggeration.  Or was it.  After I worked the whip a bit, and got the timing down, it turns out to crack just fine.  But it is much harder to control and crack.  The timing is completely different, and I haven't managed to crack it with my right arm yet.  Still, I'm now very happy with a sixteen foot whip.  It's impressive, far more impressive than the whip I made last year, and it's going to be fun to practice with it.
I'm afraid this hobby has me hooked now.  The new whip is not a very exact copy of the old one, and I still think the old whip has the most classic design and structure.  So I'm going to try again next year, assuming I can get another couple of kangaroo hides.  I've been keeping notes, and should be able to estimate the length of strand needed for the finished whip much more accurately next time. This kind of thing is addictive.


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