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Sorry for not replying sooner. The groove is pretty much just to make it a bit easier to tie everything on, as you discovered it's not needed to get a functional whip but saves a bunch of time.
The keeper starts out much like the overlay, just with fewer strands in the flat plait.
Not really. The only thing that truly matters is that the whip tapers smoothly and is reasonably flexible. With paracord a single belly around a core will typically work well for a reasonably sized whip, but with thinner cord you'd want a few more bellies to get it large enough to be comfortable to hold and to get the stiffness/flexibility right.
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