Splitting Leather for Whip Making

Splitting Leather for Whip Making

One interesting area of whip making is splitting leather.  Some whip makers split everything, some nothing, some just bolsters, some just the bellies, some just the overlay or pretty much any combination of those.

If you don’t know what splitting is it’s when you run leather under a blade/knife to make it a more uniform thickness.  You can do this by hand with a knife or through a splitting machine:

As I understand it pretty much all leather leaves the tannery after going through some sort of splitting process to even out the leather.  So if  you buy leather it’s probably already been split.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the leather is the same thickness throughout.  It means it’s been evened out a bit.

Here’s a good example if you take a side of any time of leather off a cow (kip, calf or adult cow) there are firmer parts and stretchier parts.  So if you are cutting a bolster across the hide your bolster may be mostly firmer leather, but at some point have a bit of stretch.  That stretch is going to give you a thinner spot once you stretch the leather (yes I stretch my bolsters).  So a trip through a splitter after the bolster is cut out will make sure everything is more even.

Is this 100% necessary?


It comes down to a matter of preference to the whip makers. Some makers like everything 100% uniform some like the the natural variance in leather.  No one way is right or wrong.  In theory if everything is uniform you’ll get more consistent whip…but since leather is a natural product that’s next to impossible because you have things like density of the leather that you can’t control.  Sure you can get pretty close, but not exact.  For example even if you cut a strand from the tail section of a kangaroo skin it’s going to be more dense than a strand from somewhere else.

Currently My thinking on splitting is I pretty much always split the core and bolsters.  The exception is on cheaper whips.  I split the bellies and overlays on a case by case basis.  That’s how I currently do it and that will probably change over time.

Here’s a quick splitting tip:  Keep you blade sharp!

osborne 86 splitter

I strop mine before and after every time I use it (or at least I try to)!

Right now I’m working on a matched pair of bullwhips.  These are going to be six feet long and because there are two bullwhips made from two different kangaroo skins I need to split them to get the the matched effect.

So for these bullwhips every layer will be split down to the same thickness.  This helps me match them as best as I can.

Here’s some in progress pictures of the pair of bullwhips:

matched bullwhip pair


matched bullwhip pair

Right now both inner bellies are finished and the next step will be cutting out and attaching the inner bolsters.  I also have already cut out a prepared the outer bellies, so hopefully today I’ll have the time to both out bellies plaited!


Bullwhips, fids and lace cutting

Bullwhips, fids and lace cutting

Yesterday I shipped out this pair of 8 plait bullwhips:


I think they came out really well and at 8 plait look pretty cool!

Now my current project is to work on two 4 plait snake whips  using the extra two shotbags that I had cut out for an order of four snake whips a few weeks ago.  The piece of leather I cut the four shotbags from was bit enough to cut six, so I had two surplus ones.

snake whip

When I was filling the shot bags I learned that on one of them I didn’t tie off the tip tight enough.  When I started to fill it the lead shot just dumped all over the floor.   It sucked to clean that up!

snake whips

A couple of days ago I stopped by a leather place in Seattle to pick up a couple of Osborne Fids (I keep setting mine down and losing them).  While I was there I noticed they had an Osborne Lace Cutter:

Osborne lace cutter

I’d only seen the picture above and was curious to see it in real life.  It was interesting, but not something that I could use.  It’s one of the lace cutters where you start with a hole in the middle of the skin and it cuts outward.  I guess if you had a perfect skin with no scars and you were cutting lace without any taper it might be useful, but it’s not for me.

While I was there the kid working the counter tried to sell me on an Aussie Strander

strand cutter

I told him that I cut by eye with a box cutter and didn’t need one.  His reply was my lace would be neater if I used a strand cutter.  I told him I cut plenty straight freehand, but he didn’t believe me.  We had a little contest with some scrap.  I cut and pared a  piece of lace about 2 feet long in the time it took him to just cut and my was much straighter than his!

But cutting free hand is a skill and not everyone wants to spend time to learn the skills made in whip making…which is fine, but by taking short cuts you will only get so far. There’s nothing wrong with using a lace cutter and I’m not saying I’m a “master whip maker” or any thing  like that, but by having a level of competency with doing things the hard way has made me more aware of the art of whip making, not just the manufacturing process of a whip.