Whip making (horse)
Making whips for driving horses.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|1 company and 1-2 individuals
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Illustrations from the Middle Ages usually show drop thong whips (often with two thongs) being used for carriage driving. In the Luttrell Psalter (c. 1330) there are a couple of illustrations that show bow top whips. The history of whips seems to be similar throughout Europe and ancient Greek vases show several varieties of whip as does Roman sculpture.
The zenith of whip making was the mid nineteenth century. The use of baleen in the thong bow enabled a finer whip to be made that was controllable, the energy being transferred to the lash as the whip became both thinner and more flexible from the handpiece to the tip of the thong. The woods used for the stock largely remained those that had earlier been used for superstitious reasons though the ‘witch wood’, rowan, diminished in popularity as it was less suitable than holly, yew and blackthorn. English bow topped whips were exported throughout the world in the nineteenth century but they have largely been replaced by synthetic whips which are much cheaper but not as good to use. The drop thong whip has continued to be used when driving commercial vehicles. The stock of the best of these is baleen so recently fiberglass has replaced the whalebone. With new baleen being unobtainable many bow topped whips now use fiberglass and nylon in the bows. Postillion whips were traditionally braided in very elaborate patterns as they are almost exclusively used for ceremonial purposes. Modern postillion whips are much simpler in construction but I have made several of the complicated ones for export.
The classic driving whip is the English bow-topped. Form follows function in the design and it takes years to master all the skills involved.
When there were several manufacturers of whips it was common for each part to have its own craftsmen. An English bow-topped whip has a stock made of a suitable wood which has been cut in winter and seasoned for at least three years (unless it is bamboo).
The stock is usually carved with knobs down to the handpiece. The knobs imitate the natural growth knobs of the wood and the number of knobs usually indicates the quality of the whip the cheaper ones just using the natural knobs. The knobs might be branded with a keyhole shaped iron to imitate the natural pattern. The wood is steamed straight before sanding and varnishing. The handpiece is usually made over a metal sleeve and any suitable leather is used to cover it. Antique whips may be sewn up to 16 stitches to the inch but as low as five to the inch can be found in some modern whips. The butt and ferrule (collar) are made to fit from brass or silver (sometimes gold or nickel). These can be cast, turned or made from sheet metal. The thong needs to be braided from a dense resilient hide such as horse or kangaroo and the tapered profile is achieved by braiding over a leather, gut or vellum core and varying the number of laces used from four to ten (postillion whips can be braided with up to forty-eight laces). The laces for the thong are hand cut and beveled and ideally taper. Inside the bow part of the thong the leather is braided over a core of baleen and vellum. The thong is joined to the stock with four prepared goose or swan quills which are bound to the thong and stock with linen thread. The place where the thong and the stock come together is indicated by a ‘knot’ where the thongs and linen are finished off.
Ceremonial whips might use coloured linen for binding. Trade turnouts have their traditional whips such as brass bound. Coaching whips may have a thong of around fifteen feet in length as the lead horses need to be touched by the collar. There are numerous other variations such as four in hand whips combining a coach horn to entertain the passengers. The little lash on the end of the thong might be in coloured silk or linen to match the vehicle. In show classes conservative traditional whips are favoured. Split bamboo whips like old fishing rods are sometimes made for hackney drivers.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The viability of the craft is severely compromised by the difficulty in obtaining the correct materials and the fact that good whips will last for well over a century and fill the need to supply a diminishing market for less than a whip can be economically made for.
- Those with the knowledge of what makes a good whip are getting older.
- Poor quality whips are being passed off as English bow topped whips and standards have fallen considerably in recent years.
- It is difficult and time consuming and impossible to make anything close to the minimum wage.
Craftspeople currently known
A good whip is well balanced with the point of balance coming a little above the handpiece. A well balanced whip will sit lightly in the hand and naturally assume the correct position.
Most whips made from natural materials are now imported from Germany.
David Morgan has written a book on leather braiding but there is no book on driving whip making. Usual leather working skills apply to the making of the handpiece. Books on stick making such as Walking and Working Sticks by Theo Fossel are useful for the handling of the wood.