Still cracking a whip in Somerset East

The crack of a whip is not only as iconic a country sound as the crowing of a rooster or the starting up of a diesel engine, but as Mike Burgess learns from legendary whipmaker Oom Hennie Greyling, whips are also deeply entrenched in our rural heritage.

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The crack of a whip is not only as iconic a country sound as the crowing of a rooster or the starting up of a diesel engine, but as Mike Burgess learns from legendary whipmaker Oom Hennie Greyling, whips are also deeply entrenched in our rural heritage and they demand skill to craft.

A historic buffalo hide and bamboo ox whip, neatly stored behind a door at Oom Hennie Greyling’s Somerset East home, serves as a potent symbol of the age-old craft of whipmaking that he still practises. It was with such giant whips that groups of pioneers in creaking oxwagons successfully navigated the interior of southern Africa. And it was the crack of an ox whip that controlled the ox-drawn ploughs that transformed the fertile grasslands into crop-bearing fields.

Since those days, the secrets of the unique South African whip-craft style have been jealously guarded and passed down from generation to generation and are still deeply respected by many today.

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Oom Hennie, after almost 20 years of crafting whips, now sells his product across the country and as far afield as the US, Canada, France, Switzerland and Slovakia.To Oom Hennie, a quality handcrafted whip is nothing short of a work of art and a timeless fashion statement. “I grew up a farm boy and have always loved a good hat, good shoes and a good whip,” he says.

From generation to generation oom Hennie’s first introduction to whipmaking was via his father, but it was his late father-in-law Barend de Klerk and Barend’s cousin, Piet de Klerk who inspired him. Small wonder, as both men were considered legendary whipmakers. Oom Piet produced whips for the annual church bazaar in the nearby town of Bedford and his talents were so respected that his 1 000th whip is preserved in a glass box in the town’s Dutch Reformed Church.

Oom absorbed as much information as he could and sourced a few skins to braid his first whip, but he never got around to it because of his busy schedule as a farm manager. Then, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. He lost his cool at a local garage, walked home and began to braid a whip, to soothe his anger. “was in a hurry and the mechanic wasn’t. lost my temper, walked home, cut riempies (leather thongs) and began braiding a whip. let me get rid of the frustration,” he laughs.Since then, way back in 1989, he has made well over 1 500 whips.

Another whipmaker who really impressed him was the late Neels Bester from Wellington. Neels had instructed Oom Hennie to hurry to Wellington as only 30% of his heart still functioned. During his last years, Neels taught Oom Hennie the intricacies of whip crafting out of no less than 12 riempies.

Today he is a master of the craft and a new generation has come to learn from him as he sits in his sun room that doubles as a studio drowned in skins, riempies and tools.Crafting a legendary whip he completed main thong or agterslag of Oom Hennie’s whips consists of between four and 12 riempies, woven around nylon rope. To ensure the legendary crack, treated voorslae or whiplashes are attached to the agterslag, which is then attached to a carefully selected handle.

Oom Hennie believes that success of any craft demands the use of quality materials. If such materials are combined with experience and skill, it’s possible to end up with a “showpiece”. Therefore, quality leather is of utmost importance and, as Oom Hennie explains, whipmakers across the country swear by the quality of different kinds of leather.Free State whipmakers believe that blesbuck leather produces the best voorslag, while Karoo whipmakers prefer Boer goat leather for their whips. For Oom Hennie, there is no better voorslag than that made of bushbuck leather. “It’s the Mercedes of voorslae, very tough and durable,” he says, stroking a treated bushbuck ewe skin.

Oom Hennie’s choice of agterslae includes the tough leather of eland and kudu, while he also experiments with internationally sourced leather, including kangaroo from which the famous Australian bull whips are made. He also uses Asian water buffalo. For his whip handles, ironwood is sourced from Knysna, while lighter yellowwood and wild olive wood is also used.

Integrating these materials to create a fine whip is, of course, the challenge. For any aspirant whipmaker, the customer’s different tastes need to be taken into account.“Some people look for a short whip and others want a medium whip. The one guy wants it like this and the other guy wants it like that; it’s all about different tastes,” he says.An important consideration when crafting a whip is to work to create a balance between the whip and the body type of its future user to ensure fluidity of motion.

This can only be achieved if the agterslae and voorslae are the correct length. Hennie’s 1,2m coffee table, piled with tools and riempies, doubles as a measuring tool for his medium length voorslae of 1,2m, which are attached to an agterslag of 900mm and a handle of 600mm. Measurements are decreased or increased depending on the height of the customer.“A well-balanced whip will with minimal effort from an individual, enable him to even strike a targetted leaf,” says Oom Hennie.The craftOnce the leather work begins, riempies are cut from skins, which are treated at the Southern Cape Ostrich Tannery in Mossel Bay.

Oom Hennie rubs the riempies with milking salve to ensure easier and neat weaving.Once complete, the agterslag is rolled between two stones to ensure a smooth finish of the braided product, which should resemble the scales of a Cape Cobra’s underbelly, says Oom Hennie. Voorslae are prepared by wetting, stretching and rounding before the difficult and demanding task of neatly attaching the voorslag to the agterslag.“To ensure neat attachment is difficult; it took me years to perfect. You must be able to braid the riempies backwards to create a neat finish,” he says.Dubbin is then applied to the leather before the whips are posted to clients or at times, even delivered personally.

Oom Hennie says that it gives him a chance to visit his daughter in Bloemfontein when he goes out to post or deliver his whips. In the near future, he will be delivering consignments of whips across the southern Free State. On his return, urgent work awaits him in the form of another consignment of whips and he modestly credits the growing popularity of his product to the generous time, along with the associated attention to detail that he affords each whip before it is sent to its new owner.“It’s the extra time you put in that ensures the quality. There is no such thing as making a whip quickly,” he insists.
Contact Hennie Greyling on
(042) 243 2056 or 082 441 1919 |fw