Published in Shop Talk Magazine, May 2015
Back in 1989, Noah Miller decided to turn his hand to manufacturing BioThane harnesses for his neighbors in Holmes County, Ohio. At the same time, he also took whatever harness repair jobs came his way, fixing up traditional leather harnesses as well as those made from then-new-fangled coated synthetic webbing.
When a synthetic webbing harness broke, Miller found that the damaged component was usually a leather piece used in conjunction with synthetic lines. He reasoned that the problem came down to maintenance: a leather harness requires regular upkeep such as cleaning and conditioning, while synthetic coated webbing needs little more than an occasional wash with a hose. Where synthetic and leather components were used together in one harness, the leather parts were not receiving the attention they needed to give long service and therefore were the first to fail.
While he stresses that leather and synthetic are both quality materials which have their place in harness making, Miller realized that combining the two in one harness was asking for trouble. He set out to develop the first fully synthetic harness: a harness in which lines and components would all be made from synthetic materials sharing the same maintenance requirements.
25 years later, Noah Miller has accomplished his goal of creating a fully synthetic harness–and a whole lot more besides. Today his two youngest sons work alongside him at N&A Harness Shop, along with five additional employees. Even this crew can’t handle the full volume of work, so Miller contracts with several other shops to help out with production.
Miller’s sons Wayne and Vernon Miller direct the harness making part of N&A’s business, manufacturing driving, work and show harnesses using BioThane® coated webbing and their own line of molded urethane components. The Millers are excited about their new and improved show harnesses with advanced features, which are being used by many exhibitors in major draft horse shows such as the Horse Progress Days in Mount Hope, Ohio and the World Percheron Congress (held in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2014).
BioThane®’s new semi-gloss Beta® product is proving very popular for driving lines. Before this style of coated webbing became available, N&A used BioThane®’s super heavy Beta® for lines, but the new product has a nice feel for driving and matches very well to the semi-gloss harness components.
Jim Kehoe, an N&A Harness customer for over 15 years, owns JK Percherons in Moravia, New York. His teams work on the farm, show all over the United States and appear in parades and special events. At least 20 harnesses from N&A hang in Kehoe’s barn. “I depend on the consistency of N&A’s harness,” says Kehoe. “When I’m hitching up a six-horse team, I don’t want to worry about variations in quality or fit. Everything Noah Miller and his crew produces is up to the same high standard, which makes my life easier.”
Even though Kehoe hasn’t bought a complete new harness in several years, he often needs components and accessories for his teams’ many events and appearances. When he was preparing for the World Percheron Congress in West Springfield, MA in October, Kehoe realized he needed several items only a few days before the show. Miller’s crew turned his order around in three days, ensuring Kehoe had what he needed for the important event.
Miller’s BioThane® harnesses work so well for JK Percherons that the operation doesn’t use leather at all anymore. Kehoe tells Shop Talk that his BioThane® harnesses are washed after every use, often right on the horse. Kehoe and his staff take the draft animals to the wash bay wearing their harness and clean both at once.
Kehoe also likes N&A’s prices. “I don’t have to wonder if Noah is giving me a good deal on what I buy from him. His prices are very fair for the quality of his product, and I know he will give me a break on a large order if he can,” Kehoe remarks.
“He’s just a really nice guy to do business with,” concludes Kehoe.
Wholesale Harness and Tack Components
In addition to making and repairing harness, N&A also designs and sells components to other manufacturers of products which incorporate coated synthetic webbing. Noah Miller takes care to avoid competing with his harness and tack-making customers by limiting his trade show and auction activity to wholesale shows. If he attends a retail trade show or auction, it’s as a spectator rather than an exhibitor.
Miller’s company designs, manufactures and wholesales molded urethane components including:
- Blinders: N&A’s first product, and still one of its biggest sellers, blinders are available in a range of colors in all sizes.
- Slide loops: this very popular item is available in many colors. While black remains the most popular, N&A recently added yellow to its range of colors, which also includes white, red, three shades of brown, blue, purple and green.
- Molded ends on traces
Unlike leather, coated webbing retains its original shape over the life of the product. While this characteristic of coated webbing has its benefits, it can also lead to rubbing and discomfort in some areas of harness and tack. To overcome this problem, N&A pre-forms some specialty components to build lasting shape and contour into straps like cruppers, breast plates, hip straps, face pieces and the crowns of bridles.
Harley Troyer of Troyer Harness and Equipment Co. has purchased harness and components from Noah Miller’s operation for over 20 years. While he has done business with a number of smaller shops, Troyer finds himself returning to N&A Harness time and again for their workmanship, quick turnaround times and good business practices.
“Really, I can’t say enough about Noah Miller and his family,” explains Troyer. “We get so many compliments on the products they make. When the harness arrives, people are very pleased with the quality.”
Though Troyer Harness still offers leather harness, 90% of their customers have switched to BioThane® for its ease of maintenance, light weight and lower cost. “We have some older customers who have always used leather,” says Troyer. “After switching to BioThane®, they say they wish they had made the change years ago.”
Although traditional black is by far the most popular color Troyer sells, sometimes orders for the bright colors do come his way. This past summer, he sent a totally red harness created by N&A Harness to Mexico City.
Troyer recently visited Miller’s shop in Ohio for the first time. From another room, he heard Noah Miller’s voice. Even though the two had never met in person, Harley Troyer recognized that congenial voice immediately from many years of ordering and chatting over the telephone.
Specialized Equipment for Working With Coated Webbing
When Noah Miller first started making harness with BioThane® webbing, he needed specialized equipment that didn’t yet exist. Necessity being the mother of invention, Miller worked with closely with a machine shop to develop equipment to his own specifications. Soon enough, other shops began contacting Miller to ask if they could purchase specialized equipment for their own use, which led to a new line of business.
Today, N&A Harness manufactures and distributes equipment such as:
Seal-O-Matic: N&A’s very first piece of equipment, this tool was developed to seal the cut ends of coated webbing.
- Strap cutters
- Hoods for venting fumes produced by heating synthetic materials
Just as with any material, having the right tools makes all the difference. Miller believes that anyone using heat to shape or cut a urethane product especially needs proper ventilating equipment to avoid inhaling toxic or corrosive fumes.
Twenty Five Years in Business
Reflecting on 25 years of building a successful business, Noah Miller notes that maintaining a loyal customer following and finding new customers is a challenge, but an interesting challenge which he enjoys. N&A Harness does a fair amount of advertising, and the company also enjoys a great reputation with plenty of word-of-mouth referrals.
To celebrate this milestone year, N&A threw a customer appreciation supper at the Harness Makers’ Get Together in Fredericksburg, OH. Customers from near and far have received a commemorative insulated tote bag in thanks for their support. Miller wants any customer who didn’t receive a bag to be sure to get in touch to request one. He and his crew are more than happy to send one out to you.
As in any industry, new products are always coming on to the market. For his own harness making, Miller says the BioThane® product remains the only one he feels comfortable using.
Noah Miller and N&A Harness continue to thrive on innovation, trusted materials and loyal customers, which all add up to a legacy worth celebrating on this anniversary year.
For more information about N&A Harness, or to request a free catalog, contact Noah Miller at:
6009 T.R. 419
Millersburg, Ohio 44654
Voice Mail (330) 893-1024
Fax (330) 893-0112