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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Business owner takes a crack at making bullwhips

TAMPA — Einer Stephenson got his first whip as a kid from his dad. He was hooked from the first crack, the bullet-like snap that a whip produces when it’s handled just right.

The attraction grew after he saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with Indiana Jones cracking his bullwhip at every opportunity.

In 2000, he bought his own, paying more than $100. He was sorely disappointed in what he describes as a rope haphazardly attached to a handle.

He could do better, he told himself.

And so he did.

Stephenson is now owner of Florida Cracker Bullwhips, one of a tiny number of whip makers in a state whose heritage is infused with the mythology of the whip. He custom makes about 30 whips a year, ranging in price from about $160 to $815 for a 16-foot latigo steer hide bullwhip.

A good whip is hard to find, said Stephenson, 48, who described a quality whip as one that lasts a long time and cracks like a carbine.

“I’ve been doing it out of my house for 12 years,” he said. “I figured out how to make them. I purchased the resource material, I studied books and through trial and error over the years, I learned how to do it reasonably well.”

The attraction, said the whip maker who works out of his home in north Tampa, “is a bunch of guys standing around something that makes noise and is somewhat athletic. Anything that makes a big bang, guys like that kind of stuff.”

The distinctive whip sound comes from the breaching of the sound barrier. That gratifying “whap” is actually a sonic boom.

There are different kinds of whips, from pocket whips to snake whips to bullwhips. The best whips are made of kangaroo hide, or a special type of steer hide, if you want an American product with American ingredients, and Stephenson’s customers do.

“I don’t use kangaroo hide,” he said. “I may in the future, but for now I want to make American-style whips.”

He said he uses the latigo steer hide because of it’s durability. His bullwhips are advertised like this:

“Naturally falling bullwhip constructed with two plaited bellies; 12 plait overlay, eight-seam work on handle, 100 percent latigo steer hide.”

Some whips are nylon based, others are made of Kevlar. A wrist loop is always an option.

Business in this niche market is somewhat sluggish, he said, and he still has to hold down a full-time job.

“It is up and down,” he said. “I sell to whip enthusiasts, sport whip crackers and farmers who actually use it to move cattle.”

There are people who just like to crack their whips, like the dozen or so regulars who meet once a month at a park in Largo.

The Tampa Bay Whip Enthusiasts are all about making wisecracks.

“Hooked on crack,” jokes Jim Dahm, a 69-year-old member of the group, who’s been a whip snapper for eight years. “But this is legal. But it is addicting. It’s good eye-hand coordination. I’m not getting any younger, and it’s a good upper arm and upper body workout. Plus, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for an individual to do better with each crack.”

He said members come from all walks of life.

“We get quite a number of cowboys,” he said. “Real live working cowboys come in to get their whips fixed and meet up with whip makers who are in our group.”

Cowboys were introduced in Florida five centuries ago when Spanish explorers brought cattle with them, he said.

“We’ve been cracking whips here for 500 years,” Dahm said.

When not used for work, the whip has a certain attraction for regular people.

“Seven hundred and sixty eight miles per hour, the speed of sound,” Dahm said. “A good whip is designed to do that, to transfer all that kinetic energy to the end.”

Cracking a whip properly is a science, he said, something studied and practiced by competitive whip snappers.

There are 12 to 15 competitive cracks, each one a different way to whip the whip, he said.

“Each crack has a name,” he said. “There’s the circus crack, the straight forward crack, figure eights and overhead cracks. It’s like watching an ice skater performing all the different movements.”

And there are different kinds of whips:

The stock whip, which cowboys use, has a distinct style and has a long handle to keep it away from the horse.

The bullwhip is the most popular one.

The dinowhip is a hybrid designed to make noise. “This thing sounds like a gun going off,” Dahm said. “It will wake you up.”

The snake whip is a short whip with no handle that curls up small enough to be pocketed. It’s used by cowboys in the corral or other confined spaces.

The signal whip is a small whip with a handle that is used to drive a dog sled. “We don’t use that much around here,” Dahm said.

Whips and whip snapping are popular everywhere, he said.

“There is no corner of this globe,” he said, “that doesn’t have some sort of whip cracking going on.”

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