Scouts pick up the torch

By Nick Wright

Above: Lincoln Electric has donated time and Power MIG 140C wire welders to the Three Fires Council, as well as the nearly 300 Boy Scouts of America councils across the country.

Boy Scout troops weld their way to a merit badge as councils promote the trade

April 2015 - For an organization founded on the principles of preparedness and resourcefulness, the Boy Scouts of America has adeptly stayed relevant since being founded in 1910. There are 136 merit badges Scouts can earn—some required, others optional—from camping to robotics. Since 2009, the BSA has added 15 badges that reflect skills Scouts might use when they grow up, including programming, game design and search and rescue. 

Among those 15 is the welding merit badge, released in 2012. It’s perhaps one of the most useful ones to earn, as manufacturers remind us there’s a shortage of both skilled and beginner welders: The American Welding Society says 140,000 welders will be needed by 2019. Getting torches in the hands of Scouts exposes them to welding, and gives them a frame of reference for what could become a career.

When developing new merit badges, the BSA looks to include a skill that’s not only engaging, but relevant and useful. The combination of a gun-in-hand, the sparks, flash of an arc and molten metal make for an easy draw when the target group is young boys. According to Frank Ramirez, merit badge maintenance staff adviser at the Irving, Texas-based BSA, 14,941 Scouts have earned the welding merit badge since its inception.

With the recent efforts of a Chicago-area BSA council, one of about 300 that are independently run across the country, Scouts are earning their welding stripes, but not without the help of local businesses, schools and volunteers.


Three Fires Council

One of the things volunteer counselor Joe Harrington tells his Scouts troop is “if they take the welding merit badge, you will go from zero to welding by the end of the night.”

The Three Fires Council, St. Charles, Illinois, which represents the western suburbs of Chicago, has seized the opportunity to get as many Scouts welding as it can. Harrington, with fellow counselors Paul Chemler and Walter Berkowicz, are considered the welding merit badge playmakers for Three Fires. Considering they have day jobs outside the BSA and have learned to weld within the last couple years, it’s been no small undertaking. Three Fires began its earnest efforts in 2014—training the trainers, securing equipment and venues—before awarding 53 merit badges through the end of that year. That number keeps growing.

It was after the 2013 National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, a meeting held every four years showcasing what’s new in the BSA, when Berkowicz vowed to make welding happen for Three Fires Scouts. There, Lincoln Electric Co. conducted welding demonstrations as part of its support for the new welding merit badge. Berkowicz vowed to jumpstart welding for Three Fires, so he called Charlie Cross, Lincoln Electric’s customer training instructor, to help.

“We discovered our council had a welder donated from Lincoln Electric,” says Berkowicz. “It was in pieces, sitting unused in a garage at one of our camps.”

Three Fires has since gathered the resources of existing welding counselors, as well as donated material and space. Metal fabrication shop Clipper Industries in Itasca, Illinois, has laser cut 4,560 coupons of mild steel scrap for Scouts to use in training, while Willowbrook, Illinois-based ETI School of Skilled Trades has provided classroom and shop space.

Clipper Industries’ owner Joe Eberlin and his son are both Eagle Scouts with Three Fires Council. Eberlin cut the 11-gauge, 3-in. by 5-in. scrap pieces on his laser table. “We didn’t want the Scouts to get cut from any burrs,” he says.

Three Fires Council has conducted “train the trainer” events to equip counselors with welding skills they can teach Scouts, the first of which was at Lincoln Electric’s Chicago distribution center. As of February, Three Fires Council has 72 adults qualified to supervise and demonstrate welding techniques to Scouts. Over 200 Scouts from the Three Fires Council alone have now earned the badge. As the program has ballooned in popularity, Lincoln Electric has continued its support.


“Everyone at Lincoln Electric has been so supportive of anything we’ve tried to do. It’s astounding to me how much we’ve been able to get done in essentially a little over a year,” says Berkowicz. Lincoln has donated at least one welder to almost every council in the country. 

To earn any merit badge, process is as important as the end result. Scouts must be aware of safety hazards, how to prevent accidents and injuries, and be able to explain terms like welding, electrode, slag and oxidation. They need to distinguish various mechanical and thermal cutting methods, and know what equipment is required for them. 

After that, Scouts pick up the torch. Using Lincoln Electric Power MIG 140C wire welders, the Scouts sketch their initials onto a metal plate with a soapstone, then weld a bead on the pattern. Next, they must successfully cover a 3 in. by 3 in. by 1⁄4 in. plate with weld beads side by side. Then, they tack and weld two plates together with a square groove butt joint, and repeat the same tack-weld process with a T joint and a lap joint. 

Individual councils can choose which welding method to use—Three Fires uses the flux-cored process.

Aside from the challenges posed by teaching Scouts as young as 11 years old—the minimum age to be a Boy Scout—Berkowicz says logistics are crucial to the welding badge. Out of the 130-plus merit badges, he says the only one more difficult to offer is scuba diving without a designated welding location.

“There are lots of things you need to have in place, or else you can’t weld: a welder, power, PPE, metal, a location and so on. We had to solve all these problems, which weren’t insurmountable, but there are enough of them that unless someone makes them happen, welding won’t,” he says.

Safety first

Counselor Paul Chemler is the chief safety officer for all Three Fires Council welding events. Most welding merit badge events have 30 to 40 Scouts. The number of Scouts welding is limited by the number of trained counselors on hand; usually one counselor will train two to three Scouts at a time. No matter how many, Chemler ensures everyone has personal protective equipment (PPE). He won’t hesitate to stop a Scout if he sees something unsafe.


“In fact, Paul will go talk to parents standing around during events, put PPE on them and let them join while their kids weld,” says Berkowicz. “One dad said his father was a welder and wanted his son to learn, and thanked me for giving him the opportunity to do this.”

The welding badge events are as much about projecting serious professionalism as it is about the skill itself. “We want Scouts to do things specifically so parents know we’re serious about their kids’ safety. We won’t let the kid weld if they don’t do it safely or are unprepared,” he adds.

Popularity and world record

One issue with councils everywhere is keeping older Scouts, those in their early teens, engaged. Welding seems to do the trick, and helped draw those boys to BSA summer programs.

“When we offered the welding merit badge at summer camp, the older Scout draw went up dramatically. I think they filled every single slot they could offer,” Chemler says.

Because Three Fires has made extensive headway with welding, other nearby councils have sent counselors to Three Fires train-the-trainer welding events, supported by Lincoln Electric. They return to their respective councils, ready to get torches in Scouts’ hands.

At each of Three Fires events, whether it’s training trainers or awarding merit badges, Harrington has had to maintain a waiting list. “So many adults and youth want to learn how to weld,” he says. Plus, welding has connected other councils together. “In 10 years of Scouting, I haven’t seen any cooperation between councils like I have with welding.”

When Three Fires counselors began training, they also noticed there were no women qualified to demonstrate it and supervise. In January this year, Three Fires hosted its first women-only welding merit badge counselor training at Lincoln Electric’s Chicago facility. The course drew 26 Scout moms for 20 available spots—more than any previous training event for men or women, says Berkowicz. 

He says when Three Fires began training trainers in August 2013, there were essentially no women who could demonstrate and supervise. Through the general train the trainer events, women have comprised 10 percent of welding counselors. When Three Fires Council focused a specific session for women, the amount of women welding counselors reached 32 percent.

That the BSA on a council level can interest youths in a technical and tactile application of science, technology, 

engineering and math (STEM) is commendable and, perhaps, a smart way to plug a long-term skills gap. The efforts don’t stop there. The Three Fires Council intends to set a world record for the world’s largest welding lesson this month. 

“We’re trying to get everyone to come together, earn a badge, and set a record on the same day,” Berkowicz says. They expect 200, but are preparing for 400 people.

The Welding Merit Badge is helping Scouts get excited about career options such as welding, engineering and manufacturing in a hands-on way. “We are thrilled to be a part of the development and will continue to provide ongoing support,” says Cross from Lincoln Electric. 

In 2013, the BSA awarded Lincoln Electric with its North Star Award for the welding equipment manufacturer’s dedicated efforts in supporting the organization’s welding merit badge program. FFJ




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