Introduction: Making a Custom Leather Dog Harness

About: Hey there! Ive got a BFA in designed objects from SAIC, i've worked in the high end fabrication shops, as an industrial designer, a shop manager, an assembler of hundreds of digital cameras, a cnc machinist, a…

After browsing the web for ages looking for a harness for my pup, none of them quite felt right to me. With a little bit of leatherworking skills under my belt, I decided to make a harness that was tailored exactly to my pup. It took a fair amount of trial and error but overall it was not too complicated of a process! Hopefully by the end of this lovely little journey of an instructable, you too will be able to make something as nice, if not even nicer, for your favorite four legged doofus.

What you will need:

1) 7-9oz Leather sheet (overall square footage depends on your dog, but a double shoulder should be more than enough)

2) Rivet punch

3) Double cap rivets (med length)

4) Leather dye

5) Tan Kote

6) Gum Tragacanth

7) Wool daubers

8) Rag (cotton preferable)

9) Ruler

10) Cardboard

11) Pencils

12) Paper

13) D-rings

14) Buckle ( personally I like the look of a 3/4in buckle)

15) O-rings

16) Rivet setter

17) Slicker

Drill press

Step 1: Easily the Most Important Step in This Entire Instructable!

Acquire a dog.

Step 2: Initial Ideation

As with any design project, take some time to think about who/what you are designing for.

For example:

1) On a walk, if Toshi starts pulling on the leash, which in turn pulls on his collar, he is prone to doing what's called a reverse sneeze. He begins to wheeze and hiccup, I can't imagine it's very comfortable for him, so lets avoid touching his neck.

2) After a car ride Toshi being a small dog with a collar and leash on, will jump out of the car as soon as the door opens, not realizing that there isn't enough slack in the leash to get to the ground safely. The resulting scene scares the heck out of me as it looks like he's trying to hang himself. So let's make sure if he falls with this on, he won't get injured.

Next make some sketches while considering your use cases. They don't have to be amazing, all they need to do is explore potential ways to solve the problem!

Try making a few paper cutouts of your design, you'll start to see what's going to work, and what definitely won't, all within a few minutes. Here quality doesn't matter, in fact its almost discouraged! Fail fast, fail early, and fail often!

Step 3: Cardboard

Once you find a design you like (or if you just want to use this form) cut a version out of cardboard. The nice thing about using cardboard for leather projects is that its often incredibly close in thickness to 7-9oz leather!

Using the edge of a table you can "wear in " the cardboard, making it easier to form.

Add holes for rivets and snap them together, but don't fully set them! The goal here is to have something that you can do some fit tests with, take apart, then make modifications, or cut a new version.

Additionally I should note that when working on this initial fit test I had a tough time determining how best to take measurements from my dog and use them precisely on the harness. What I found worked best was simply cutting arm holes that were pretty close to the circumference of his arms at the shoulder and having the overall width of the harness pretty close to the circumference of the largest part of the ribcage. These measurements took the most trial and error.

Step 4: Fit Tests!

This is that fun part where you get to dress your dog in your cardboard mockup! If your dog looks at you like, "this feels weird" and/or if you notice they are walking oddly, make note of how their body is moving, and where the harness is impeding their strut. Likewise make adjustments where the harness is loose.

The goal here is to get a cardboard version of the harness that fits snug, yet allows for ample movement, and doesn't press on any boney spots on your pup.

Step 5: Recording Movement

Each time I fit the harness to Toshi I made sure to take video, use this to study their strut! You can see how his arms are pushed out from center as he kind of waddles around. Seeing this let me know I should remove material from the center so his arms could come back together slightly in a more comfortable way.

Step 6: The Final Cardboard Version!

Congrats! You did it! You made a well fitting cardboard harness! Your pup is happy to frolic around in the mockup, you know where all the holes are going to be, where the buckles go, and so on!

We didn't come here for a cardboard harness though!

Step 7: Translating to Leather

Next up is to translate your cardboard mockup into leather! Lay down the cardboard, and trace with a pencil.

While cutting leather, please don't cut yourself, it happens, but just be aware of your where your hands are in relation to the cutting path of the blade.

Step 8: Chamfer Those Edges!

Oh man oh man, this step is what will help your harness stand out from the crowd! Chamfered edges tend to be more durable and will be more comfy for your canine companion!

Seriously, chamfered edges are the best.

Step 9: Popping Holes and Dry Fit

Take out your rivet punch and start popping some holes in for the rivets!
This is a good time to test out your rivets and make sure that the hole locations actually work.

IMPORTANT: Make sure you take note of the orientation of the buckle you use! The latch will be able to open and close in one orientation, but the other will be a serious pain to undo! I have messed this up in the past and have learned my lesson the hard way!

PRO-TIP:Let's say you do set some rivets and realize something was placed in the wrong orientation, you can undo this! It's scary to do so, but take a power drill with a smallish drill bit, one roughly the size of the hole used for the rivet or smaller, and drill into the center of the rivet. Again, it's scary, there is a definite risk of you damaging your piece, but if the way the rivet was set already made your piece unusable, you don't have much to lose!

Step 10: Fancy Little D-ring Capture Method

This is a really clean and strong way to capture a d-ring!

1) Create a rectangular hole a little smaller in length than the straight portion of the D-ring, its width will be dependent on the thickness of leather you use.

2) Cut a strip of leather smaller in width than the length of the hole, wrap it around the D-ring, and feed the two ends through the hole

3) Splay the two ends and use your rivet punch to add some holes through the strip and harness at the same time making sure to keep just a touch of slack here because the rivets will cause all that to tighten.

Note: If you have never tried this before, I highly recommend making a sample piece out of scrap leather before attempting on the harness.

Step 11: It's Time to DYE

Alright, there is probably a better way to get a nice uniform dye on large pieces of leather, but who cares! we are going for style here! Dip your dauber (the little wool ball thing) in some dye of your choosing keeping in mind the color of your dog in relation to the color of the harness. I went with an alcohol based brandy color from Angelos (highly recommend this company!) and just brushed the harness keeping all the strokes running in the same direction. This way, the streaking looks intentional.


Step 12: Tan Kote!

Ok this stuff is great, it adds a layer of acrylic to your piece which will help protect it from the elements, abrasion, and everything. They say to let it dry before slicking it (that wood thing) but I like the results I get while slicking it wet.


As you use the slicker, try to get a nice even sheen all over your piece!

Step 13: Gum Tragacanto!

Apply this to the edge and slick some more! This does some sort of chemical witchcraft to the edge, keeps it nice and smooth, and won't leave any jagged edges as the piece wears through use.

Step 14: Add Some Saddle Soap!

This is the final layer of defense against the elements, mixed with a lil bit of water, and spread/buffed with a cloth, it will leave a really nice satin finish on your leather.

Step 15: Assembly!

Make sure you fold over all tabs in the same direction, preferably not on the side that touches the dogs body.

Put your rivets in place, snap them down for one last time.

Step 16: Setting Rivets

You could go the old fashioned way with a hammer, a setter and an anvil, but I have found even after setting a few hundred rivets in my day, they will undo themselves over time, or get canted, they are less consistent and I'd rather guarantee results.

Drill a hole in a board of wood with the same height as the rivet anvil, place the anvil in the board. This will prevent you from getting deep marks on your leather from the edge of the anvil. Chuck your setter in your least favorite drill press, and place your leather with rivets between the setter and anvil block. Pull down and bam, perfectly set rivet every time.

Step 17: Go Walk Your Dog Now!

Congrats! You did it! Now go outside with your pup and show of their finely tailored harness to the world!

Please feel free to ask questions, leave comments, or suggestions!

Invention Challenge 2017

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Invention Challenge 2017