Richard Welsh - Craftsman and Musician

Richard Welsh chats to Sally Wright (Head of Marketing, NRAS) about his love of music and the challenge of RA.

Richard Welsh Playing Guitar - Crooked Hands Instruments

Sally Wright (interviewer):

I first came across Richard from an article Ailsa forwarded to me. My brief; ‘can you track him down, it would make a really interesting story, he lives in Durham’. Sure I said, however, I soon found out that whilst Richard did indeed live in Durham, it was Durham, North Carolina, USA!

The power of social media prevailed and following a series of emails and Facebook messages Richard very kindly agreed for me to call him for an interview.

Good afternoon Richard, so how are you but more importantly, what’s the weather like there in North Carolina? (We are British and this is obviously the first and most important question to ask at the start of any interview!!).

Good thanks, well it’s nice, a little humid at 70 degrees but really nice for the time of year.

Thanks for agreeing to do this call Richard, I really appreciate your time. So can you tell me a little bit about your RA, when you were diagnosed and how that was for you?

Sure, I was 33yrs old, diagnosed in 1993, but I didn’t know what it was. I was working as a general contractor at the time (construction and carpentry), I thought if I ignored it long enough it would go away. I was having minor problems in my joints, symmetrical problems, my hands would swell but I put this down to wear and tear through my work. I left it for about 6 months and by the time I went to the Doctor, I was in pretty bad shape, it was really aggressive and there was lots of damage in my hands, knees and feet. In the back of my mind I thought it was arthritis, my joints were big and red and swollen. I went skiing with friends and that’s when it really kicked in; my feet were so bad and I don’t really remember the month after that, I was in so much pain – I could hardly get out of bed. Because I’d left it so long, it then took a while to get in to see a doctor as there weren’t many rheumatologists around.

So what support was there for you at this time?

Well I was lucky, I’d been married for two years and my wife pretty much took care of me; the rest of my family were about 250 miles away. My wife, Leah, was mostly responsible for my care.

Richard Welsh - Crooked Hands Instruments

It took about 6 weeks to get an appointment and I went straight on to methotrexate which was pretty much experimental at the time, but I couldn’t tolerate it, they tried Plaquenil but that wasn’t effective either. I was on high levels of Prednisone. It wasn’t a good time, it was so aggressive and I think if I’d have gone to the doctor sooner I’d have saved myself a lot of trouble. I had to have a lot of surgeries to replace and fuse different things; having my knees replaced, hand surgery, fake knuckles, cleaning out my elbows, this was all over 10 years before things started to settle down.

So what changed for you (in terms of treatment)?

Enbrel. This really changed things for me. But it was a different time period. I’d always been independent and as a man, we don’t like to ask for help. I was depressed, but my wife really supported me. I carried on working for another 7 years and was then registered disabled in 2003.

What were you thinking at that time?

Yeah, that was a really difficult time for me. I’d always been pretty self-sufficient, you know, us men don’t like to ask for help. It took me about 10yrs to come to terms with it, so I was depressed throughout those 10 years, but my wife really helped me a lot. Her career was starting to blossom at that time and after 7yrs of taking time off work, I had to give it up. Not working is what really helped me learn to live with it. It took a lot of pressure off, I’m fortunate that I married well! My wife was able to support the both of us.

What about adaptions or compromises you’ve had to make?

I was a working musician, a guitar player and after 5yrs I could no longer play guitar. When I became ‘disabled’ I started to play a lap style guitar called a Dobro. I pretty much decided that music wasn’t going to be part of my life in the way it was, so learning to play the Dobro was a real step forward for me. Getting some of my carpentry skills back and making these instruments has really helped – it’s the little victories! I’ve had to learn not to be such a hard head and listen to my body when it’s yelling at me. I have a lot of problems with fatigue, but I’m a napper

What would you say were your biggest challenges?

My attitude was the biggest problem I had at first; I was just so depressed about it, I had to rebuild my mental image of myself and decide what my strengths were all over again. You know you have this picture of yourself and then you have a chronic illness, you have to rebuild the mental picture that works with your new situation. Not being able to play music was hard, I was also pretty athletic, so giving all that up and trying to stay in shape was hard. I’m lucky with my metabolism though but the doctor said early on ‘watch your weight and don’t smoke’.

So tell me about Crooked Hand Instruments.

Richard Welsh - Crooked Hands Instruments Guitar

It was my birthday, I was on the internet and found this site where they were building instruments out of cigar boxes, I happened to have a work shop and I thought, ‘I could do that’. It quickly became an addiction but it was a way to get my carpentry skills back. I had a lot of time on my hands!

There’s lots of sanding and filing but I’ve modified a few tools that make it easier for me to hold on to as my hands are pretty bad. It takes me a long time, but that’s ok. I first started getting the cigar boxes from a cigar store in Wilmington NC and they were all nice and new and clean, but after a year or so I started buying old used and vintage ones on ebay, a little bit more expensive, but a hell of a lot more character. The older cigar boxes are so well made, really strong and make decent resonators, but I use old cookie tins or tins from candies. It’s hard to say where the inspiration comes from but it’s hard to walk past an antique store now! I look at a container and it’ll call out to me ‘I wanna be a banjo’!

The first 20 or so I made you couldn’t play as an instrument but the ones I’m turning out now are pretty viable, especially the ukuleles and the 4 string guitars.

So tell me about the handle/fret board – what do you call the guitar handle?

Oh you mean the hand at the top? Yeah, so I’ve made a mould of my left hand – I’ve done this on two so far. One’s an upright bass I made out of a gas tank, that was the first large instrument I made and I used the mould at the top of the headstock from alginate. I put one on the top of a cello too. On the smaller instruments I inlay a little wood carving of my hand.

It takes me about 30 hours to make an instrument. I usually build 2-3 at a time and that takes me about 2-3 weeks.

So how are you now?

My RA is very much under control right now, I’m dealing with old damage, my problems tend to be tendonitis in my right wrist and shoulder; I’ve had to become ambidextrous because of the damage. I’m pretty mobile and most people don’t even notice I have RA until they see my hands.

If you could look back on your younger self, what advice would you give?

Well I would certainly say ‘go to the doctor as quickly as possible!’ Then try not to worry too much about how your life’s going to change. Your life will change anyway as you age, everyone has their health issues, I try not to dwell too much on my RA. I tend to live in the moment. Stress is the worse thing. I’m fortunate that I don’t have much to worry about now. My wife is the reason I’m able to do these things, Leah really has been a great support and I’m truly thankful for that.

Is talking an important part of your RA?

Yes it is. Most of my friends know I have RA and my musician friends will carry my gear for me. They always know I’m trying to do things I shouldn’t do and my wife does too so they try and stop me from hurting myself. There’s a fine line between pushing yourself without hurting yourself.

Are you honest about how you’re feeling?

I try to be. I try not to lie to myself or friends/family and that can be difficult. Don’t give in to your RA, be active. I try and walk a mile every day and that’s all the exercise I get. I make myself get up and go out, gets my heart pumping. It’s important to stay active without overdoing it. It took me 10 years to get to a point where it wasn’t going to beat me.

What’s next, are you a planner, can you plan?

I don’t really plan that much, we’d like to travel, we don’t have kids so we’re not spending anyone’s college fund! I’m not one to make big goals, I tend to live day to day.

Richard doesn’t have a website, but you can take a look at his instruments on his facebook page

Crooked Hands Instruments - Facebook Page