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Experimentation in Whipmaking, Including Bellies & Bolsters Versus Bellies Only Construction

July 21, 2009
Paul Nolan Braiding a Whip Belly

Paul Nolan Braiding a Whip Belly

The following post was actually a response to someone on a forum who was asking about making whips, and why so many professional whipmakers use bolsters with their plaited bellies, and whether it might be better to use just plaited bellies without the bolsters.  The gentleman who posed this question was concerned with his perception that whipmakers seemed to just accept many whipmaking practices as “dogma” instead of experimenting, but this reply from Paul Nolan was an attempt to explain a little bit about the logic and practicality of some of the tried-and-true methods of professional whipmaking (including first the use of braided bellies and second the common practice of using bolsters), from the perspective of a seasoned whipmaking artist who has done a LOT of experimenting with technique on his own as well as speaking with professional whipmakers around the world about their techniques and experiments.

So, please forgive us if this post seems a tiny bit jumbled – keep in mind that it was written as a response to a beginning whipmaker’s post on a forum (www.indygear.com/cow).

One argument for using bolsters is that when they are plaited around tightly and then rolled, the bolsters will be compressed and fill in the air gaps that occur from the braiding not being completely solid and smooth. I’m not referring to gaps in the plaiting (as you should avoid having those), but rather the pockets of air that can be between layers of plaiting. The objective with a whip and the layers of their construction is to create a tapering thong construction that in essence becomes a dense solid piece of flexible leather. Plaiting, no matter how smoothly it is done or how many times it is rolled, will still have very tiny gaps in the smoothness of the circumference (or very tiny ridges if the strands are packed and squished together) where each plaited strand meets the other, so when plaiting with bellies only, the plaited strands are firm and taught from being pulled tightly so there is no give for those strands to form, fit, and fill completely into those tiny gaps and ridges making the bellies of the thong completely and consistently solid through each layer. When you plait over a bolster, you can undo 6 inches of the plaiting and see how the bolster has become indented and patterned by the plaiting both underneath and on top of it, and how the bolster leather has been compressed to the point where it fills in those tiny spaces to make the thong completely and consistently dense and solid, and that is even before it is rolled which will compress it all even more.

Now, that isn’t to say that well made whips with only plaited bellies and no bolsters are necessarily inferior at all because of this reason, but it is just something else to think about.

Regarding the “inner-whip anatomy and construction seems curiously dogmatized”, and studies of superior whip construction designs being “undiscussed and unexamined”, I would have to disagree. Keep in mind that quality whipmaking, specifically when it comes to Kanagaroo whips, has been around since before the late 1800’s and even lesser quality whips back as far as the Egyptian Pharaohs! There have been whips made from pulverized Willow trees which were then twisted into a tapered thong, a thick strip of Elephant hide, strips of leather in the core with a leather sewn cover, and recently (as someone pointed out earlier) whips made with plastic trash bags and newspaper as a core. Once Kangaroo hide began to be used in whipmaking in Australia, they started progressing with whipmaking skills utilizing the qualities and properties of kangaroo skin, to advance the quality of whips and whipmaking to what it is today.

It isn’t Whipmaking Dogma – there is a very good reason that kangaroo hide whips are constructed in the way that they are today, and also why there isn’t a whole lot of variance between different whipmakers’ methods when it comes to making the best quality kangaroo hide whips. It is very simply that over the past 150+ years just about every different thing you can think of was tried and tested to come up with the superior construction designs that are the most commonly used by the best whipmakers alive today. There really isn’t much of anything in whipmaking techniques that is “new” or has “never been done before”. It is good to keep in mind that with the advent of the internet it is now possible to share incredible amounts of information and pictures that have never been widely accessible, so even though something that might seem “new” to the internet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has never been done before. It just means that it has never been displayed so publicly and world-wide before, in such an accessible format. So, basically the kangaroo hide “whip inside of a whip” construction was found over 150+ years ago to be both the best material available and the best construction process to produce the highest quality and best performing whip. The following 4 points I feel support this well:

1) It is still the widest used standard for making top quality whips today.
2) Bullwhips in the U.S., which were primarily made from Cowhide/Latigo without any plaited bellies(whip inside of a whip), suddenly changed their standard construction to the Kangaroo hide “whip inside of a whip” method once the high quality and high performing characteristics of the Australian whips were discovered and brought to the U.S. and became overwhelmingly popular thanks to David Morgan.
3) There are whips that were made over 80+ years ago using this construction still around and in usable condition with the same top notch handling characteristics. Here is a picture of one that is over 80 years old and was used on a ranch in Australia and has been passed down through 3 generations:

Image

4) Not a lot has changed in the design which has stayed consistent in this type of whip for over 100+ years, while the poorer quality designs and constructions that have been tried throughout that time have dropped away and are not used by any of the top whipmakers in the world. Think Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.

And as for studies of superior whip construction designs being “undiscussed and unexamined”, while it may not have been done publicly and “online” it has very much been done. Speaking from personal experience, MOST of the whipmakers that I know personally and have spoken with are very friendly with each other, know each others work, and have discussed their differing techniques, and they all have experimented with many different ways of constructing their whips to find what methods worked best for them to create the desired finished product.

Again from personal experience, I started out learning not only from the books on whipmaking, but I also spent a great deal of time and money calling/writing whipmakers from around the world to talk shop, discuss techniques, and learn of the different methods that each of the top whipmakers use to make the same high quality roo hide whips. And with each one I spoke to, at the end of the conversation they would referred me to another whipmaker to also talk to, until I eventually had spoken to almost every top quality whipmaker in the world that I had ever heard of, and I had the largest phone bill that I have ever had (and likely will ever have! Lol. Keep in mind that this was before I had ever heard of the internet). After that, I had a huge amount of varying techniques and methods to try, and I got to work experimenting with it all. From using a lace cutter vs. thumbnail cutting, different beveling techniques vs. not beveling at all, using only plaited bellies vs. using bolsters, using pig skin, kip, roo, calf, deer, goat, etc. for bolsters… you get the idea. And through studying and trying all of those different techniques that each of those whipmakers that I talked to use, I found certain things that were constant between them all, and others that didn’t make much if any difference.

From what I have found personally the “whip inside a whip” design was an undeniable constant in making the best cracking whips. A whip with no plaited bellies on the inside can crack decently if the person making it is an experienced and professional whipmaker, but really having plaited bellies on the inside is unmatched. When comparing specifically using bolsters and plaited bellies vs. only plaited bellies I have found if both methods are done well there is not really much of a difference, if any at all, in their handling characteristics. Personally I lean more toward using bolsters along with the plaited bellies, but I also make them with only plaited bellies on request. They both handle similarly, feel similar, and have no discernible advantage one way or the other in the majority of whip types. It really comes down to the whipmakers personal preference, as some find it more efficient and that they can produce the desired finished product with only plaited bellies, and others prefer using bolsters along with the plaited bellies. The same thing goes for the number of plaited bellies in a whip. A whip with 8 plaited bellies doesn’t necessarily crack better than a whip with 2, it’s all about the whipmaker and their skills and experience and their preferences in making the type of whip they like best.

I have discussed all of these things with other whipmakers, and I am certain that without a doubt others have experimented at one time or another with these same concepts. After all, whipmaking wouldn’t have progressed to where it is today if the whipmakers of the past hadn’t experimented with different methods and constructions.

When it comes to the Indy whip specifically, that is the only time that I will ONLY use the bolster and belly construction. My personal opinion is that it isn’t a true Indy whip unless the construction is the same as the original Morgan whips, using the bolsters and bellies. Even though different constructions may look the same on the outside, to me it just isn’t an accurate indy whip.

With the bellies and bolsters I would suggest that you continue to do your own experimenting, and find which way works best for you personally to get the desired outcome you want from the finished product. Because if you are looking for any definitive “this is exactly how to make the best and most perfect cracking whip”, I’m sorry to say that you’ll never find it.

So those things have definitely been discussed and examined, but again, just not necessarily on an online public forum. Although there is more and more of that going on recently, and with the APWA (Australian Plaiters and Whipmakers Association) now having a forum online some of the worlds top whipmakers now have the ability to discuss and share their techniques, tips, and whipmaking thoughts with each other without having to take a very long trip to visit, or rack up an enormous long distance phone bill. :P

Striving for perfection is the best part about whipmaking. It is an unobtainable goal, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to progress with each and every whip. Experimenting with different techniques is a part of that progress, but learning from field-tested tried-and-true whipmaking practices (including learning from experience the reasons for why they exist and working to be capable of executing those practices with skill) is just as, if not more, important in the grand scheme of learning to make high quality whips.

Good luck to you, and don’t stop thinking about all this stuff – it’s the ability to analyze and think critically about every whip completed and every step of making each whip that is the mark of a whipmaker that is (or will be someday be) truly excellent in his art. Just like with writing in the English language, you need to learn the rules before you can break them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Jarrell permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:47 am

    Wow! I find the whole concept very interesting, as I’ve been experimenting with both ideas, although keep in mind that I’m speaking from a cowhide perspective lol, I haven’t evolved to kangaroo as of yet, but plan to in the very very near future, if not sooner.

    With cowhide I find that for a whip being 8 feet and over, I like the belly’s with out bolster concept, although I do like to add a bolster around the core from time to time especially if its a packed one.

    On the other hand, if its a light one belly whip that is well balanced, then the whole belly/bolster idea more or less shines through for me.

    This is an awesome blog, I’m truly enjoying the weather of info.

    cheers.

    JJ.

  2. May 5, 2015 4:17 pm

    Reblogged this on Diary of an ADHD fellow and commented:
    Jumbled but awesome to hear from people…

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