Buying Your First Whip
For a first time buyer purchasing a whip can be overwhelming. There are so many varieties of whips to pick from, and unless you're getting advice from someone that knows about whips it can be hard to know where to start. And even after you've decided on a style of whip you still need to figure out where to purchase it from.
While it is true that most any whip can be used for most any technique, some whips are definitely better than others for particular jobs. Imagine it as having a car. Any car can get you from point A to point B, but if you're trying to pull your sail boat, the Mazda Miata is not the best choice, you really want your Ford F-150 in that case. If you only can have one car and one of your requirements is to tow a boat, don't buy the Miata. Luckily, whips are a lot cheaper than cars, so you can probably own more than one!
Here are some questions you might want to think about to help you out with answering the question "what kind should I buy?"
Why Do I Want a Whip?
Did you see Adam Winrich at a RenFaire? Did you watch Zorro or Indian Jones? Do you work with cattle and need a noise maker to help herding them? Each of these possibilities will lead you to different possible whip styles.
If you saw Adam Winrich or someone else at a RenFaire doing some fancy cracking, and that's what interests you, it's likely that you're going to be happiest with a Stockwhip or a Performance Hybrid Whip. Stockwhips and PH Whips are excellent for complex rhythmic cracking patterns, and tend to be lightweight making it easier to crack them for an extended period of time.
Did you watch Harrison Ford swing out of danger on a whip (don't try that by the way, it's VERY rough on whips) or see Michelle Pfeiffer as Cat Woman destroying department stores (don't do that either, it's illegal) then you probably want a bullwhip. Bullwhips are great for targeting, wrapping, and basic cracking combinations. Bullwhips also satisfy most people's preconceived ideas of what a whip should look like. Be aware that in the world of Indiana Jones fandom people can get very fussy about the details of what exactly the "Indy" whip should looks like.
Do you work with livestock and need a noise maker? Your best choices in this case might hinge on whether you're usually on foot or on horseback. Stockwhips were specifically developed with the idea of working from horseback. The handle helps keep the whip itself from hitting your mount, and the hinge formed by the keeper make it easy to sling the whip over your shoulder when not needed. If you're working from the ground, a Snake Whip which you can rollup and keep in your pocket might be more convenient. Another whip (though quite esoteric) for working from the ground might be a Bullock whip.
Should I Buy a Leather or a Nylon One and what should I be looking for in terms of quality?
Leather, and kangaroo in particular, is considered the gold standard for whips. But you will end up paying for that gold too. A hand made 6ft bullwhip in nylon from a good maker may cost under $200 USD, but in roo hide the same length whip will be easily twice the price. While vegetable or bark tanned kangaroo hide is usually the best choice for making whips; Cowhide Latigo, Kip, red hide and white hide and synthetic nylon also make suitable whips and are popular choices. When looking for a The thong should have a shaped, plaited belly foundation and core. All plaiting should be very tight with the strands cut to nearly identical widths. The sets should lay in close and even and there should be no gaps between them. The seam should be straight with no spiraling and the whip should have a smooth gradual taper. Spots where the strands are turned in and dropped during plaiting to lower the plait count towards the point of the whip, should be almost undetectable. Every whip will have a natural curve to it; and the thong should feel dense and solid, even with no bumps, kinks or unevenness when you run your hand down over the whip. Patterned work should be carefully done, making the designs even and straight and looking the same right round the piece. All knot work should be neat and tight with strands of a compatible width to the general work of the whip. The knob of the handle should be of a size and shape to fit comfortably into the palm of the hand when using the whip. The fall should be fixed securely to the point of the thong with a small, neat tie-on. It should not be heavier than the point of the whip and should continue the whip's taper, as should the cracker when fixed to its end. Whether leather or nylon, the whip should feel well balanced and throw out smoothly and evenly, it should crack itself without much muscular effort from the user and not feel like its bucking, or pulling your arm in a recoil like motion.
Another thing to consider for a first time whip owner is the total lack of maintenance needed for a nylon whip vs a leather one.
For a first time whip, you're probably going to get a lot more "bang" for your buck from a nylon paracord whip.
How Long a Whip Should I Get?
5-6ft for a Stockwhip or Performance Hybrid
6-7ft for a Bullwhip or Snakewhip
Seriously, for a first whip, the answer is that simple. The shorter the whip the faster the movements need to be to get cracks to happen. The precise timing necessary to make a short whip crack can make it frustrating for a beginner. Going the other direction can be a problem for new whip crackers as well. Long whips can make it difficult to learn some techniques, particularly combinations. Also, the longer whip will be heavier which will tire you out quicker, making your practice sessions shorter and less productive.
Where Should I Buy My Whip?
Sounds obvious but, from a person that makes whips. Directly from the maker. A reputable, well established whip maker. Don't buy a whip from ebay or etsy unless the seller is the person that is actually making the whip. There are lots of poorly made whips out there for sale that are not worth the materials used to make them. A poor quality whip will impede your ability to learn techniques and eventually turn a new and exciting hobby into an "I tried it but it wasn't any fun" footnote in your history.
When you buy directly from the person that is making the whip you are supporting a craftsman that has spent an incredible amount of time developing their skills. Some whip makers will have whips in stock ready to go, but many work with a backlog that may in some cases be several months long!
The whip cracking community is small enough that whip makers will generally be very happy to help you make decisions about the type of whip you might want, and work with you to make sure you're getting exactly what you're looking for.