What are craft skills? A brief overview.

By Gordon Rugg

Craft skills are not the same as crafts, although the two concepts are related.

The term “craft” usually relates to a set of practical knowledge about a manual skill, such as basket making or carpentry.

The term “craft skills” originally related to specific pieces of practical knowledge within a craft, but is now often used in a broader sense, to describe any specific pieces of knowledge that are viewed as too low level to be worth including in an academic body of knowledge.

For instance, an academic course on research methods probably wouldn’t include specific information about the best way of typing in data from a paper questionnaire into a spreadsheet. That information would usually be viewed as a craft skill, easily (and often better) learnt via practical experience, or via informal guidance from a mentor while using the craft skill.

That’s the usual view of craft skills. However, there has been a recent growth of interest in craft skills, and particularly in academic craft skills, which has discovered that craft skills are more important for academic learning than was previously assumed. This is particularly relevant to the concept of transferable skills, where the reality turns out to be more complex and problematic than is generally assumed.

Craft skills involving practical knowledge have a very long history. Here’s an example.


When you’re making a flint handaxe like the replica above, you need to check whether the flint you’re starting with is flawed or not. If it’s flawed, it’s likely to shatter in your hand while you’re working on it, which is painful.

You check for flaws via the craft skill of tapping the flint, and listening to the sound. If you hear a dull sound, then the flint is probably flawed. If you hear a clear ringing sound, then the flint is probably good quality.

Because checking for flaws is such a central part of flint working, it’s likely that this craft skill was in use when hand axes were first made, over a million years ago. This particular craft skill almost certainly has an unbroken lineage of transmission from that time.

What’s particularly interesting about this craft skill is that it also turns up in a surprising range of other fields. Tapping a material to test it for hidden flaws is also used in pottery making, in glass making, in stone carving, in metal casting, and in dentistry, when checking whether a filling has cracked.  One of the research questions I’m investigating involves the patterns of distributions of craft skills of this type, to see what light they throw on the development of technology and innovation.

Craft skills can also involve abstract skills, such as the use of referencing when writing academic text. The books I’ve co-authored with Marian Petre about research methods deal at some length with academic craft skills, since in our experience there’s a lot of variation between institutions and disciplines as regards how much attention is paid to these craft skills in education.

With the growth of taught courses on research methods as part of PhDs, the issue of academic craft skills has been receiving an increasing amount of intention. It’s become clear that academic craft skills often have a complex structure and involve a significant amount of knowledge. The craft skill of choosing which references to use in a piece of academic writing, for instance, involves a considerable amount of specific knowledge about the choice of most suitable journals for the topic under discussion, as well as specific knowledge about when and how to use other sources of information.

It has also become clear that different disciplines can have very different positions with regard to that craft skill knowledge. This is often for perfectly sensible reasons, but those reasons are often not explained explicitly to students, leading to considerable needless confusion.

A classic example is the use of direct quotes in a piece of writing.

  • In some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, direct quotes are viewed as invaluable because the analysis is often driven off the precise wording that was used within the quotation.
  • In other disciplines, however, direct quotes are viewed as an indication that the writer was unable to synthesise the key findings from a body of literature using their own words.

The consequence is that in some disciplines use of direct quotes is viewed as a key skill, whereas in other disciplines the ability to avoid direct quotes is seen as a key skill.

This has obvious implications for the concept of “transferable skills” which is currently in vogue. Many skills, such as academic writing, involve a large body of sub-skills that may take very different forms in different disciplines. The potential for transferability therefore needs to be assessed sub-skill by sub-skill, rather than treating concepts such as “academic writing” as single homogeneous units.

We’ll write in more depth about transferable skills in a later article.

My books with Marian Petre:

A Gentle Guide to Research Methods, by Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre


The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg



5 thoughts on “What are craft skills? A brief overview.

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