Introduction: Bullwhip From Upcycled Belts

About: I'm a deck officer in the merchant navy. I spent my youth on square-rigged sailing ships, travelled the world and learned a lot of traditional crafts. For some reason, my main hobby the last few years has been…

I love the feel of a leather whip in my hands, but leather is a lot more expensive than paracord, especially for beginners, and preparing leather for whip-making is a major undertaking. Fortunately, secondhand leather belts provide an inexpensive way to make short whips.

For this project you will need:

  • Leather belts (see step 1 for more details);
  • Paracord or hollow shoelaces;
  • Steel BBs and/or lead shot;
  • A thin, rigid object to use as a handle (I use spare needles for pneumatic needle-guns, but knitting needles should work too);
  • Plaiting soap (a mixture of soap, lard and water);
  • A pencil and paper;
  • A cigarette lighter or matches;
  • Fabric tape (the sort you find in the $2 shop) or electrical tape;
  • A tape-measure;
  • Either an aptitude for mathematics, or a calculator;
  • A stanley knife;
  • A lace beveller (optional);
  • Hammer;
  • Carpet tacks or small nails;
  • A computer with a browser and internet access;
  • A printer;
  • A toilet roll and glue or sellotape; and
  • Patience!

Step 1: Find Your Belts

The most important part of this project is, of course, the belts. I usually find them for between $2 and $5 in Op Shops (I think they're known as "Goodwill Stores" in America, and "Charity Shops" in the UK). The ideal belt for whip-making is plaited from flat, strong, thin leather, and is of the type that is plaited from long strands which are doubled-over. Low-quality plaited belts are often not made from leather; these can be identified if you turn the belt over. The strands are open at the back, and are wider strands of fake leather which are folded over. How many belts you need depends on the length, width and number of strands. In this whip, I used most of three belts: one for the belly (8 plait) and two for the overlay (16 plait).

This step is simple, but important: you need to unravel the belts, measure the length and width of your strands and write the measurements on a scrap of paper.

Step 2: ​Plan Your Whip

Do you still have that piece of paper with the strand measurements? You'll need it for this step.

A whip consists of five main parts:

  1. Core (the bit in the middle);
  2. Belly or bellies and bolster, where most of the work is;
  3. Overlay (the pretty plaited part on the outside);
  4. Fall and cracker (the part that makes the noise); and
  5. Decorative knots (usually turks heads).

If you look at your measurements, unless you're very lucky, you are likely to have several groups of strands of different lengths and widths. The maximum length of your whip is about 2/3 the length of your longest six good strands. In my case, my best, longest three strands were 10 ft long (60"), which I cut in half to 5 ft, so my whip was going to be about 2/3 of that, which is 40".

Once you've decided that, you can calculate the rest (round the numbers off - they're approximate):

  • Core length = whip length x 5/6 = 40 x 5/6 = 33 1/3" rounds to 33" for me
  • Loaded length of core = core length x 0.9 = 29.7" rounds to 30" for me
  • Length of strands for belly:
    • 2 strands at 3 x core length, 1 strand at 2 x core length, 1 strand at 1 x core length. This is a minimum. If your belly strands are longer than this, don't cut them at this stage - you can cut them while you're plaiting, which will give you more control over your taper.
  • Length of strands for Overlay (assuming 16 strands):
    • 6 x 1.5 whip length, 2 x 1.4 whip length, 2 x 1.3 whip length, 2 x 1.2 whip length, 2 x 1.1 whip length , 2 x whip length.
  • Fall length: use the strongest piece of leather you have that's at least 1/3 to 1/2 x whip length.

Note: if you have really narrow strands, you might need more of them. A good rule of thumb is that the total width of the strands when laid side-by-side should be about 1.5 times the circumference of whatever you're plaiting around.

Step 3: ​Grease Your Strands

The recipe for the plaiting soap I use is 1 part grated soap (pure unscented soap), 1 part lard and 1 part water, melted together. Some recipes use turpentine as well, but I don't like putting turps on leather. As far as I know, the only reason for the turps is to prevent dogs on farms from chewing on the treated leather, and I don't have dogs.

Rub the plaiting soap well into the strands. As you do so, pull firmly on the strands to check for weak spots: it's far better to find and discard weak strands now than to have your strands snap later on while you're plaiting.

Step 4: ​Prepare Your Core

This whip is halfway between a "normal" leather whip, and a paracord whip. For the core, I've used BBs and #10 lead shot, packed into a length of paracord. The length of the paracord is about 10% more than the core length you calculated earlier. For me, that means a piece of paracord about 36" long. If you don't have paracord, try a shoelace - as long as it's hollow and flexible, you can use it.

Pull the core out of the paracord and set it aside for later. Insert your handle into one end of hcarbon fibre rod, really long nails, or anything else you can think of that will fit into the paracord.

Use your lighter, matches or another heat source to melt the end of the paracord around the handle.

Stick the point of your pencil into the end of the paracord that doesn't have the handle in it. Use your lighter to gently melt the end of the paracord around the pencil point, then pull the pencil out. This should give you a sort of funnel in one end of the paracord. Start stuffing BBs into the paracord and pushing them down hard against the handle. Keep going until the BBs fill about 2/3 of your loaded length (remember, you calculated that in step 4), then fill the remaining 1/3 with lead. Don't forget to wear gloves and wash your hands when you've finished handling lead: it's toxic. If you don't have lead, just fill the whole lot with BBs.

Tie a knot in the end of the core to keep everything in.

Step 5: Make Your Cracker

Remember the paracord core you saved when you started making your core? That's pretty good to use for making crackers, but if you've lost it, baling twine, cobwebs, long hair, thin fishing line, sinew, or really anything that's fairly strong, thin and light can be used.

Whatever you're using, take about 3 or 4 ft of it and tie it in a loop. It doesn't matter what knot you use, as long as it holds. Hold the knot between your teeth, stick a finger, a pencil or something similar in the other end of the loop, and twist. If you keep twisting for long enough in the same direction, eventually it will kink and twist up on itself. When that happens, stop twisting, fold it in half and allow it to twist up neatly. Tie a tight knot about 2" from the end, then trim the very end off.

Step 6: Prepare Your Fall

You won't need this until much later, but it'll make your life easier if you prepare it now. Choose the strongest, thickest strand you have and cut it to about half the finished length of your whip. If you're not sure, leave it long: it's easy to trim it down later.

Use a bevelling tool (I made mine following Bernie46's design on youtube) or a sharp craft knife to round off the corners of the fall, then grease it well and cut a lengthwise slit about 1/2" long, about 1/4" from the end.

Step 7: Getting Ready for the Belly

Gather your belly strands, find the middle and wrap them around your finger. Use one strand to tie two half hitches around the strands on that side of your finger (the photo should make more sense than that explanation), then remove the strands from your finger and start a 4-strand round plait for about 1 1/2". As a reminder, a 4-strand plait is under 1, over 1.

Step 8: Plaiting...

Follow the pictures closely. Untie the two half-hitches and tidy up that end of your plait, then lay your strands out as shown in the photo above. You are starting an 8-strand plait around the handle of your core. Cross two strands from each side cross at the front, then lay the handle underneath them and start plaiting in an under 2, over 2 pattern. Once you have done a full pass with every strand, pause to pull everything firm and make sure it's all laying right. Extra care at this point can save you headaches later on. When you're happy, continue plaiting, under 2, over 2.

Plaiting tip: as the saying goes pull tight, plait loose. That means that you only need to tighten a strand before you plait it. As you plait, watch out for spiralling: most people have one hand stronger than the other, and if you don't pay attention, you'll find your plaiting seams going in a spiral rather than a straight line. This is a bad habit to get into, and can affect the way your finished whip flows when you crack it.

Step 9: ​Dropping Belly Strands

When you're about 1/3 of the way up (or down?) your belly plait, it's time to drop some strands. Find your two shortest strands, and when they get to the "top" of each hand, just ignore them and change to a six plait (under 2, over 1 on one side, and under 1, over 2 on the other side).

When you're about 2/3 of the way, drop two more strands in the same way and change to under 1, over 1.

When you're getting towards the end of your core, you may find that the lead/BBs are starting to bunch up. Simply untie the knot and allow them to spread out neatly, thenget a needle and thread, sew the end of the core up permanently, and keep plaiting.

About 1" after the end of the core, sew securely around all four remaining strands and stop plaiting. Cut one strand off every 1/2", then sew around the strands to form a tapered bundle.

Step 10: ​Roll the Belly

Your belly is almost done, but the plaiting probably looks a bit rough and lumpy. Find a flat solid surface (I use a large offcut of wood) and a flat solid object like a hardcover book or a piece of wooden plank, and roll the belly firmly between the two. This should make the plaiting lay flatter and form a better base for a neat overlay.

Step 11: ​Bolster and Reinforce the Handle Transition

In a traditional leather whip, the transition from the handle to the whip is reinforced by binding with sinew, and the bolster is a piece of thin leather wrapped between the belly and the overlay. In this whip, good quality fabric tape serves the same purpose (the joy of modern materials). Starting at the end of the handle, wrap firmly over the belly, working towards the thong (the flexible part of the whip) and overlap about 50% of each wrap. Stop when you're about 1" past the handle. Repeat this three times, each time going about 1 1/2" further. I wrap in the opposite direction each time, but that's more out of habit than for any good reason.

Step 12: ​The Overlay

This is the part that everyone will see, so it pays to take extra care. This is difficult to explain, so please look at the pictures.

Find your overlay strands and lay them out in pairs, matched by length. Put an elastic band around the end of your handle, about 3" from the end. Pass the end of one pair of strands under the elastic band; repeat with the second pair, but put them either side of the first pair; put the third pair either side of the second pair, etc. If you have 8 pairs, they should be in the following order: 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Once they're neatly in order under the elastic band, use a piece of the paracord core that you set aside earlier to secure the strands tightly to the whip. I use a common whipping and a constrictor knot, but as long as they're not going to come off, it doesn't matter how they're tied.

Find your first two strands and use them as a guide to separate your strands into two groups, left hand and right hand. Starting from the middle, mentally name them L1 to L8 and R1 to R8. The names refer to the positions, not the individual strands! Pass L1 to your right hand over R1 and R1 to your left hand; pass R2 over all to your left hand and L2 over all to your right; pass R3 over all to your left hand and L3 over all to your right; pass R4 over all to your left hand and L4 over all to your right. Ensure that all strands are sitting neatly.

Starting with L8, pass it around the back of the plait, under R8-R5, over R4-R1 and back to your left hand; pass R8 around the back, under L8-L5, over L4-L1 and back to your right hand. Continue with this pattern, passing each strand around the back, under the first half of the strands in your opposite hand, over the second half of the strands in your opposite hand, then back to the hand it started in.

Step 13: Continuing the Overlay and Dropping Strands

Continue plaiting for about 1/5 the length of the whip, then drop two strands. You drop strands by separating out the shortest two strands and when they reach positions L4 and R4, lay them alongside the belly and plait over them. As you will then have two strands fewer than before, change your plaiting pattern to under 4, over 3 and continue plaiting. Once you have plaited over about 2" of the dropped strands, cut them off at different lengths and continue plaiting.

Note: Before cutting, make sure you are about to cut the correct strands!

About 1/5 of the length later, drop another two strands, following the same procedure and change to under 3, over three.

Repeat 1/5 of the length later, change to under 3, over 2.

And again 1/5 of the length later, change to under 2, over 2.

And again 1/5 of the length later, change to under 2, over 1. And continue with that until your whip is the desired length, or you've almost run out of strands to plait. Make sure you have at least 6" left.

Step 14: Attach the Fall

Find your fall. It's probably buried under all of the offcuts and unused scraps in the corner of your workspace.

Poke all 6 remaining strands through the slit in the end of the fall, slide it a short way down the whip, and arrange your strands neatly so that you can see what you're working with.

Take the lowest strand and tie a half-hitch around the whole bundle of strands, whip and fall. Pull it firm, but not tight - you really don't want to snap it now. Take the matching strand on the other side and repeat. Don't forget to include the first strand you tied in the bundle.

Repeat, alternating sides, for the other 4 strands, then take the last strand you tied and pass it back down through the slit in the fall. Pull each strand tight, but don't snap them, then pull on the fall so that it slides up and locks the last strand off.

Trim off all of the strands so they're about 1/4" long. Make sure you don't accidentally cut off the fall - that really makes life difficult.

Step 15: Roll the Whip

Roll the whip between two hard surfaces, just like you did with the belly. It should be starting to look pretty good by now.

Step 16: Attach Your Cracker

Open a loop in the "non-fluffy" end of your cracker and poke the end of the fall through the loop.

Tie a half-hitch around the end of the fall with the cracker.

Pull it all tight.

You now have a usable whip, which you should be able to crack. Give it a try.

The rest of this instructable just makes it look a bit neater. You can stop here if you want to.

Step 17: Turks Head Base

Cut a strip of thick leather or rubber about 1/4" and long enough to go around the handle of your whip. Use carpet tacks to nail it around the handle, covering the whipping that holds the strands on.

Step 18: Turks Head

Many people find this the trickiest part of the whip, mainly because there's a bit of trial and error involved in working out what sort of turks head to tie. I've used a 5 part, 6 bight turks head with two passes.

If you don't know much about turks heads, the International Guild of Knot Tyers has a wonderful gridmaker that generates patterns for you to follow.

To use it, you need to understand some basic terminology:

  • "Parts" are the number of times the strand has to go around the pattern to follow it once around;
  • "Bights" are the number of "loops" at the top and bottom of the knot;
  • "Passes" are the number of times you follow the pattern around completely.

To use the gridmaker, enter the number of parts and bights you want, then click "Generate Turks Head". Print the pattern out, tape it around something like a toilet roll and poke pins or toothpicks into the bights at the top and bottom. Use the pins as a guide to carefully follow the pattern with a strand of leather. It might take you a few goes to work out the right size for your whip, but it's a simple way to tie a neat turks head.

Once it's tied, slide it off your toilet roll and onto your whip, then carefully and patiently use something pointy to tighten it around the leather strip you nailed on. The trick to making this look good is to work slowly and make sure that every part lies flat and in the correct place before moving on. It usually takes me at least two passes to get it neat enough to make me happy, and tight enough to stay in place.

Once it's tight, trim the ends, sit back and admire your work - or go outside and practice cracking it.

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