The Hidden Industry of Hold Manufacturing

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Photo: Element Climbing
Photo: Element Climbing
Photo: Element Climbing

This month we are taking a look at the growth and evolution of America’s climbing hold industry. In our last installment, we looked at some of the important milestones that have shaped the climbing hold industry since its inception thirty years ago. Today we are taking an in-depth look at the rise of professional hold manufacturing companies in America.

While these manufacturing companies are a growing component of the climbing hold industry, very little is publicly known about them. CBJ set out to learn more about how these companies operate, who uses them and why.

THE BASICS OF THE POUR

Before we delve into professional manufacturing companies, it’s helpful to review just how modern climbing holds are made. The first step is for a hold shaper to carve an original design out of high density foam. Silicone is then poured over this foam shape to create a mold, and the mold is used to cast the shape out of polyurethane. Once the polyurethane is cured, it is popped out of the mold, the edges are sanded and inspected for quality before getting bagged and shipped to customers.

On paper, the process is pretty simple. And in fact, the recipe is straightforward enough that anyone can make their own holds by purchasing foam, silicone and off-the-shelf polyurethane from a chemical wholesaler or distributor.

The reality of mass producing holds is a little more complicated.

A STICKY, TOXIC BUSINESS

Teknik Handholds’ founders Zoë Kozub and Seth Johnston began making their holds out of urethane in 2007, and learned first-hand the challenges of making holds out of polyurethane.

From the Teknik website:

“We worked with our local urethane supplier to tweak our formula over and over again. But no matter what we did our molds didn’t like the new goo one bit; it stuck, it frothed, it was horribly misbehaved. We had heartbreaker after heartbreaker as we lost mold after mold to this urethane’s destructive forces. On top of this we were constantly dealing with stuck components and clogs in the pouring system which created off ratio mixes that didn’t cure and made unbelievably huge messes.”

After a year of trial and error, Teknik switched to a different polyurethane supplier and found a formula that was easier to work with and produced a better finished product. Their production went much smoother, but Teknik’s in-house production of polyurethane didn’t last very long.

Kozub told us in an email interview that after years of working with climbing hold chemicals, Seth Johnston’s health was suffering. “For the last year or more of our in-house pouring phase, Seth would get bad rashes on his forearms each day after working with the materials and he would feel dreadful for around 2-3hrs after each day of pouring,” Kozub said. “Finally, after a particularly heavy week of pouring, he left the pouring room complaining about chest tightness and a discomfort in breathing. So we pulled the plug; that was the last day we ever poured.”

For Teknik, finding someone else to manufacture their holds was an easy choice. At the top of their list was finding a facility that had an excellent urethane formula. “We wanted to be unbeatable in every way, including material, which had always been our Achilles heel,” said Kozub. To them, this meant using Aragon Elastomers. “We actually didn’t even consider anyone else. We knew they had years of experience pouring quality holds, and had without a doubt the best material. If we were going to outsource our production, we felt there was no reason to go with anything other than the best,” said Kozub.

High-tech polyurethane mixing equipment. Photo: Cannon Group
High-tech polyurethane mixing equipment. Photo: Cannon Group

Aragon Elastomers

Aragon Elastomers was founded in 1998 by Chuck Demarest, a polymer scientist and well known urethane chemist. For years Aragon made all kinds of urethane products, like inline skate wheels and molds for formed concrete. But Demarest also happens to be a mountaineer and long-time member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group living in Boulder, Colorado. With this combination of skills, it might seem inevitable that Demarest would find his way into the climbing hold industry. In 2006 Aragon started working with eGrips, a climbing hold company based in Boulder, and the result was one of the best polyurethane formulas to hit the climbing hold industry.

Since then Aragon has scooped up the manufacturing business of many different climbing hold companies, but the exact number is a bit of a secret. Some of their customers, including Teknik, eGrips, Kilter, Urban Plastix and Kingdom openly advertise their use of Aragon, but an unknown number of other hold brands prefer to keep their contract with Aragon under wraps.

PROFESSIONAL MANUFACTURING TAKES OFF

While Aragon was a urethane manufacturer that fell into the climbing hold industry, a number of other manufacturing companies have emerged out of existing hold companies.

CHM

Climbing Hold Manufacturing started in 2007 when a group of climbers bought Morganic climbing holds based in Logan, UT. One of CHM’s owner, JT Clark, told CBJ that after they purchased the hold company they had “far more capacity” in terms of space and equipment than they could use with just Morganic. Soon thereafter they purchased ETCH climbing holds and brought the production of those holds to Utah. “We integrated ETCH and found that we still had far more capacity than we needed,” said Clark. So they started producing holds for other brands.

In 2008 they moved their facility to Salt Lake City, and doubled the size of their manufacturing. While CHM does not have a website and is hardly known beyond a handful of hold insiders, they have been successful in contracting with a number of hold companies. Clark would not disclose exactly how many, or discuss which brands are poured at CHM’s facility, and in fact the company has a mutual disclosure clause in their contract with clients that prohibits either party from talking about the other. The result is that most people that buy holds have never heard of CHM and almost no one knows whose holds are getting made by this third party in Salt Lake.

Photos: Proxy Production
Photos: Proxy Production

Proxy Production

Down the road in Salt Lake City, Proxy Production is another hold manufacturing company that grew out of existing climbing hold brands. Proxy emerged in 2012 when Clark Shelk, owner of the Cordless Group (which includes the Revolution and Pusher brands) decided to move to Colorado. Shelk didn’t want to move his production facility with him, so he sold the manufacturing assets to his former employees. Dustin Buckthal and John Stack, who now co-own the facility, founded Proxy and signed on to be the Cordless Group’s exclusive North American manufacturer. They also added production capacity so they could manufacture for other brands.

In addition to manufacturing for Revolution and Pusher, Proxy now manufactures for Uncarved Block, Menagerie and Source climbing holds. Unlike Aragon and CHM, Proxy is transparent about the brands they manufacture, and in fact has a retail site, HabitClimbing.com, where they promote and sell all of these brands, along with other gym supplies like bolts, textured paint and padded flooring.

“We put into place quality control and assurance steps, improved and scaled manufacturing capabilities, and created HabitClimbing.com to provide additional sales opportunities for our brands,” said Buckthal in an email interview. Proxy is committed to a quick turn-around for their orders, with color-specific orders adding just one business day to delivery. “We think that this is a huge value for both the brands we manufacture and fulfill for … with all the setting-by-hold color, it’s unreasonable to wait upwards of a month for a color specific order,” said Buckthal.

Climbing Wall Supply

The newest entrant into the holds manufacturing business is Climbing Wall Supply. This is the production arm of Element Climbing holds, which recently started producing holds for Enix and has plans to bring in other brands, including a new American brand and an established European company looking to manufacture in the US.

“We’ve been considering manufacturing holds for other companies for a while. When Enix reached out to us, we had the infrastructure and process in place to meet their production and distribution needs,” said David Filkins, owner of Element and Climbing Wall Supply.

Element currently produces all of their holds by hand, but is looking to add automated mixing systems to their production line later this year. Like Proxy, they also have a retail website, cheapholds.com, which they purchased in 2012. In addition to selling their own holds, they also sell a few lines of climbing holds from So iLL and Asana, as well as climbing hardware and equipment.

“From the time we were pouring in our basement, Element has always approached climbing hold production as a business. We have always been forward thinking, putting in place key components such as dedicated production and order fulfillment staff, liability insurance and standardized processes,” said Filkins.

Photo: Element Climbing
Photo: Element Climbing

THE CASE FOR PROFESSIONAL PRODUCTION

It’s impossible to say exactly how many of the climbing hold brands sold in America are produced by one of these manufacturing facilities. Of the three dozen or so major hold brands, we’ve only been able to establish that a handful, including Climb-It, Asana, Three-Ball and Atomik, still produce their holds in-house. Multiple hold companies contacted for this story refused to disclose where their holds are produced and asked not to be mentioned in the article.

For some hold companies, there seems to be no upside in disclosing that they no longer manufacture their holds in-house. The climbing industry has embraced the romantic image of the passionate climber shaping and pouring holds in their garage. But to succeed in today’s crowded marketplace, hold companies need professional production facilities that can fulfill modern expectations of quality, consistency, durability and efficiency, while providing a safe environment for the employees that are being exposed to urethane fumes and sanding particulates on a daily basis.

Buckthal of Proxy Productions summarized the business case for professional hold production quite well:

“Outside of the climbing hold industry, 3rd party manufacturing is not only prevalent, but really the standard. This allows specification and total focus on a core-competency. For the manufacturer, that means quality control, timely order fulfillment, efficiency, scaling, etc. In turn, that allows the brands to focus on their core competency, which is really product development (shaping), brand development (marketing), and sales. I would doubt that many hold companies were created with the founders thinking they would focus on six-sigma manufacturing. Though quality is a necessity, it’s more likely that the founders wanted to create great shapes and hit sales goals, with manufacturing simply being a means to meet those goals. By allowing brands to release the responsibility of manufacturing, they can put all their energy into what really defines their brand, and what really creates value in their company”.

Hold manufacturing companies operate at scale that makes investment in raw materials, equipment and knowledge much more practical. They also let hold companies focus on what counts.

Clark of CHM said that a few of his clients doubled their operations after contracting with his company because it allowed them to focus on sales rather than production. “They had time to do the customer service. They didn’t have to ignore phone calls because they were in the middle of a production pour,” he said. (CBJ asked to be connected with one or more of CHM’s clients to confirm this information, but no contacts were provided.)

Back at Teknik climbing holds, Kozub said that they don’t miss hold manufacturing. “It was kind of fun listening to loud music in a big warehouse, boxing up holds with our bunny running around. But we don’t miss the pouring room with the chemicals, the sanding room with the dust, the industrial heaters blasting us all winter. Manufacturing was interesting for a while and was a good challenge for us – but it’s not where our greatest talents or interests lie,” said Kozub. “It’s definitely better that we can focus our time on shaping, marketing, and customer service.”

Of course some of the largest hold companies might be able to afford to invest in separate production, sales and marketing staff, and could see cost savings by cutting out the middleman. But with the fractured state of the hold industry in America today, and with new companies popping up every month, it’s likely that third-party manufacturing will become the norm. So maybe it’s finally time for us to shed the nostalgia for the days of yore when climbing hold companies did it all, and celebrate the fact that we’ve reached a new, professional era of hold manufacturing.