What is a Boilermaker?

Boilermakers assemble, install, and repair boilers, closed vats, and other large vessels or containers that hold liquids and gases. They perform physically demanding, dangerous work. Many must travel to worksites and live away from home for long stretches of time. Most learn their trade through a formal apprenticeship program. Candidates are more likely to get into training programs if they already have welding experience and certification.

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What does a Boilermaker do?

Boilers, tanks, and vats are used in many buildings, factories, and ships. Boilers heat water or other fluids under extreme pressure to generate electric power and to provide heat. Large tanks and vats are used to store and process chemicals, oil, beer, and hundreds of other products. Boilermakers typically do the following:

  • Use blueprints to determine locations, positions, or dimensions of parts
  • Install small premade boilers into buildings and manufacturing facilities
  • Lay out prefabricated parts of larger boilers before assembling them
  • Assemble boiler tanks, often using robotic or automatic welders
  • Test and inspect boiler systems for leaks or defects
  • Clean vats using scrapers, wire brushes, and cleaning solvents
  • Replace or repair broken valves, pipes, or joints, using hand and power tools, gas torches, and welding equipment.

Boilers are made out of steel, iron, copper, or stainless steel. Manufacturers are increasingly automating the production of boilers to improve the quality of these vessels. However, boilermakers still use many tools in making or repairing boilers. For example, they use hand and power tools or flame cutting torches to cut pieces for a boiler. To bend the pieces into shape and accurately line them up, boilermakers use plumb bobs, levels, wedges, and turnbuckles. If the plate sections are very large, large cranes lift the parts into place. Once they have the parts lined up, they use metalworking machinery and other tools to remove irregular edges so the parts fit together properly. They join the parts by bolting, welding, or riveting them together.

In addition to installing and maintaining boilers and other vessels, boilermakers help erect and repair air pollution equipment, blast furnaces, water treatment plants, storage and process tanks, and smokestacks. Boilermakers also install refractory brick and other heat-resistant materials in fireboxes or pressure vessels. Some install and maintain the huge pipes used in dams to send water to and from hydroelectric power generation turbines.

Because boilers last a long time—sometimes 50 years or more—boilermakers must regularly maintain them and upgrade parts. They frequently inspect fittings, feed pumps, safety and check valves, water and pressure gauges, and boiler controls.

What does it take to be a Boilermaker?

Most boilermakers learn their trade through a formal apprenticeship program. Candidates are more likely to get into training programs if they already have welding experience and certification. Most boilermakers learn their trade through a 4- or 5-year apprenticeship. Each year, apprentices must have a specified number of hours of related technical training and another large number of hours of paid on-the-job training.

On the job, apprentices learn to use the tools and equipment of the trade. Those who already have welding experience complete training sooner than those without it. In the technical training, apprentices learn about metals and installation techniques, as well as basic mathematics, blueprint reading and sketching, general construction techniques, safety practices, and first aid.

When they finish the apprenticeship program, boilermakers are considered to be journey workers, who perform tasks with guidance from more experienced workers. A few groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs.
The basic qualifications to enter an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Physically able to do the work

In addition to satisfying these qualifications, candidates with certification or documented welding experience have priority over applicants without experience. A high school diploma or GED is generally required. High school courses in math and welding are considered to be useful.

Workers must be strong enough to move heavy vat components into place. They must have high endurance because they spend many hours on their feet while lifting heavy boiler components. Because workers often work inside boilers and vats, they cannot be claustrophobic. Some boilermakers must work at great heights. While installing water storage tanks, for example, workers may need to weld tanks several stories above the ground.

What is the workplace of a Boilermaker like?

Boilermakers perform physically demanding and dangerous work. They often work outdoors in all types of weather, including extreme heat and cold. Dams, boilers, storage tanks, and pressure vessels are usually large. Therefore, boilermakers often work at great heights. When working on a dam, for example, they may be hundreds of feet above the ground. Boilermakers also work in cramped quarters inside boilers, vats, or tanks that are often dark, damp, and poorly ventilated.

How much does a Boilermaker earn?

The median annual wage of boilermakers was $54,640 in May 2010. The lowest 10% earned less than $30,410, and the top 10% earned more than $80,830.

Apprentices usually start between 30% and 50% of the rate paid to fully trained boilermakers. They receive pay increases as they become more skilled.

Learn more about being a Boilermaker