The Man Behind Merlin Rock Gear
Erick Davidson makes his own cams and founded a company called Merlin Rock Gear to share them with others. And they’re big.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Erick Davidson churns out another small batch of handmade climbing cams. It is here, in his two-car garage, where the planning, designing, and production of Merlin Rock Gear takes place. In the living room below, his wife is scrolling through a climbing forum, uncovering requests for their homemade climbing gear. Silently stalking nearby is their cat Merlin—the face of the company.
“I started making micro cams about 15 years ago,” Davidson said. “But the micro cam market is saturated—there are plenty of those.” It was around 2005 when Davidson began his afterwork hobby of designing and manufacturing cams in his garage. As a Mechanical Engineer and an avid climber, Davidson fused his interests to create his own climbing gear. He oversees the whole process of creating the cams, from initial design to distribution. “I am a Mechanical Engineer so I do the calculations and finite element analysis to design them and I machine test the strength of the cams at my work,” Davidson said. He studies camming ratios, designs logarithmic spirals, and spends hours making incremental design improvements. “That’s the stuff I like doing—that’s my day job, too.”
By 2013, Davidson had started designing and building large cams instead. “My wife is one of the few who really likes offwidth climbing but she doesn’t like being scared. We weren’t really pleased with the options out there for large cams and I was like, ‘I think I can make a large cam better than what is available,’” he said. He spent weeks producing the first few prototypes only to watch the cams fail spectacularly during the machine testing. Eventually, the prototypes held up against the battery of tests, which meant it was time to test their usability on real rock. “You know the cam will hold weight, so now you’re just checking for handling, but it’s still a little nerve racking.”
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Remembering some of the early wall tests of his first large cams, Davidson said, “Some of my first large cams were loaned to friends doing things like the Salathé Wall.” The Salathé, a 35-pitch route up the granite monolith of El Capitan in Yosemite, has some notorious wide sections. Pitch 14, the Hollow Flake, intimidates many with a long runout section after placing a tipped out number six cam. “The Hollow Flake pitch is utterly terrifying if you don’t have a large cam. I let a friend borrow one and said, ‘Yeah, I know it will work, but…’ (laughs). He didn’t fall on it, but he did lower from it. He told me he looked up at it and thought, ‘I hope Erick knows what he’s doing.’”
Initially, these large cams were solely intended as a side-project, for use solely by Davidson and his wife during trips to Yosemite Valley. But while they were out cragging one day, an acquaintance snapped a photo of their behemoth cams and posted it to the (now-defunct) SuperTopo forum. “Suddenly all of these people wanted this cam,” Davidson said. “I don’t read the forums at all but my wife loves them. Everyday she checks and when she saw that and told me, I got more involved.” A member of SuperTopo compiled a list of all the people who had requested a cam. The total was some 20 people. “I agreed to make a batch but because I didn’t know these people, I set up an LLC before I began manufacturing the cams.”
Selling safety gear to the public presents inherent risk to the provider. Without personally knowing how each individual uses and treats the gear, Davidson’s control of safety only goes so far. “My biggest concern by far is the safety of climbers and getting sued. Once the cam leaves my shop, I have no control over how it is stored, used, misused, handled, placed, or anything else. I plan, engineer, and test for all cases I can think of but I can’t anticipate everything,” Davidson said. Although Merlin cams do not go through any outsourced safety certifications, the gear is tested for strength in the shop. “I do all of my own testing. I test every single stem assembly to 7 kN, I test all new concepts to failure, and occasionally I test entire cams to failure in a universal testing machine,” Davidson said. The limited liability corporation (LLC) of Merlin Rock Gear provides some protection to Davidson in the event that he were to be sued, but there are certain cases in which his personal assets hold risk. “The LLC separates my personal assets from those of the LLC. That being said, the liability protection offered by an LLC isn’t perfect and the risk is huge,” Davidson said.
Engineer hobbyists, students, and fellow climbers have approached Davidson with questions regarding the cam-making process and investment and he gladly provides insights. “I was initially using a friend’s machine shop and outsourced a few of the parts. Over time, I’ve bought most of the necessary equipment. The big ticket item is a three-axis CNC vertical machining center. The one I have now is tiny as far as CNC machines go but runs at about $45,000,” Davidson said. Despite the high price tag on his small machine, Davidson clarifies that the parts could be made on an even smaller machine for a few thousand dollars. “The other big tool is a 30 ton hydraulic press to do the swaging which runs at about $1,000,” Davidson said. Other expenses include an acetylene torch for $500, tooling for the CNC machine for a couple grand, a straight stitch sewing machine at $700, and a furnace for another few grand. “For getting started, you could outsource all machining. Outsourcing is quite expensive but is easier and cheaper than the initial outlay for a shop,” Davidson said. For those on a tight budget, other production methods exist as well. “If you had access to a machine shop, you’d probably need a few hundred dollars in material and a few special tools. If you just wanted to make a very basic cam or two, you could probably do it with a bandsaw and drill press,” Davidson said. “I am totally supportive of other people who make cams as a hobby. I will tell them anything they want to know; It’s great to see other people making stuff and would love to see more of that.”
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Davidson made his first 20 Merlin cams in small batches, five at a time. He provided his email on SuperTopo for others who might be interested, but didn’t imagine he’d get many more requests. “I wondered, How many offwidth climbers can there be in the world? And of them, how many want one of these cams? I thought that number must be like 50 people in the entire world.” But email requests began piling up and the waitlist began. Eventually Davidson was making 50 number eights at a time and 25 number tens, making a batch of about 75 cams every four months. “The list kept growing. These days, people typically have to wait between two and four months depending on when they contact me.”
Next, two different things happened to shake things up: the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Diamond’s release of their extra-large Camalots. “People are not climbing as much, many people are getting laid off, so no one has money. Black Diamond released their cams [which decreased some of the demand for Merlin cams], so I am almost caught up now,” Davidson said. “I’ve been churning these out since I started the company three years ago and making them takes most of my weekends and evenings. It will be nice to have a break—I can go climb!”
Although having caught up with the seemingly never-ending list of interested buyers brought about some relief, Davidson’s engineering background wouldn’t miss an opportunity to point out mechanical disadvantages where applicable. “BD [Black Diamond] basically made a larger version of their number six,” Davidson began. The main failure mechanism in larger cams tends to be a buckling of the lobes rather than a wire break as seen on smaller cams, so lobe thickness comes into play. “They did some things different but they use the same 1/4 inch thick aluminum for their big cams as they do for their smaller cams.” Because buckling resistance is a function of thickness cubed, Merlin Rock Gear cams’ resistance to buckling is larger than Black Diamond’s super big cams, Davidson explained. “My design is buckling resistant in the sense that as soon as one lobe starts to move, it can’t go anywhere,” Davidson said pointing at the lobe. The look and feel of Black Diamond cams, however, continue to impress, he said. “There is some original design in their extra-large cams and they have an impressive fit and finish as usual,” Davidson said.
Ultimately, Davidson is excited for his new found free time but won’t stop improving his designs. He’s never hosted a website nor has he done any marketing for Merlin Cams. He is not in it for the money—or lack thereof. The only reason Davidson is not actively losing money on the business is because he makes the majority of his own parts. “If I paid for-profit job shops to make these parts, I would lose money,” Davidson said. “I don’t pay myself any salary and I do not pay for many normal business expenses such as rent, but if I were to pay myself a salary, after expenses like materials and a few outsourced parts, I would be paid below minimum wage.” Davidson’s love for engineering and climbing are what keep him psyched. “I love engineering and making things and that’s why I’m doing this. I’ve also met many amazing and inspiring people through this which also keeps me going,” Davidson said.