Not even sure where to start after a title like that. Yes. No. Let me back up.
I started off carving with the worst possible tools. I struggled along for a year or so until I finally felt it was worth it to cough up the $25 for a Mora 106 and a bit more for one of Robin's early open sweep hook knives. I used a tag sale hatchet. The I stumbled along with these for a couple more years, seeing the much more expensive tools made by blacksmiths and old Swedish companies and felt like I would never find myself needing them.
I prided myself on doing the most possible with the tools at hand. At really owning them, knowing just how to get them to do what I wanted. I became good at that.
Then one by one, really top end tools started finding me, at first through the generosity of others (thank you Matt, thank you Brian!), and more recently because I have deliberately sought them out. As I have become proficient with these new tools, my carving has grown much better.
Leaving me to wonder, what is going on here?
Am I becoming a better carver, or am I just getting better tools? Now spoiler alert, the answer is that of course I cannot tease the two strands apart and claim that it is one or the other factor. It is clearly both. I am becoming better, and so I make better use of the better tools, and the better tools also allow me to achieve surfaces and control that I hadn't been able to before. But would I have felt the same way when I was less experienced?
If I was just starting out, is it really the right move to buy top end stuff right away? Will that accelerate the process of gaining the skills and confidence that lead to good carving?
Boy is this a tough one. I really don't know. I like the idea (probably because it's what I did) that you just start with whatever you've got and muddle along. But I recognize that I might very well have not continued carving at any number of junctures along that road. I might have thrown up my hands and thought it was never going to get easier. I almost did. Life goes in twisty ways, and I could have ended up somewhere totally different.
So I guess the result I'm coming to (and I really am just thinking this out now, as I write), is that the best tools might not make you a better carver immediately, but they might make you more likely to stick with spooncarving. Because that same mastery that I gained with my tag sale hatchet I might have been gaining with my Gransfors Bruks if I'd not scoffed at the very idea of pouring that much money into this budding business. Who knows where I might be today with that extra time on the better blade? We can't know where we might have ended up, but we can look back and see what almost stopped us from continuing.
For me, that was not knowing how to sharpen. It was not having a hook knife of any sort. It was not taking a lesson, and not actively pursuing deliberate learning. It was thinking I knew more than I did, when you really put things in perspective.
So yes. You can totally muddle along with whatever you have at hand. I certainly did, as did most other professional carvers. It takes rare forethought and deliberate action to make a plan, spend some money, and enact the plan. Want to be a better spooncarver in four months? Spend $400 on tools, another $100 on education, and then practice.
You could do the same without spending money, but it would probably take you a year to be in the same spot. Which is fine.
When I was younger I routinely traded my time as a tradeoff of not spending money. Just be clear eyed about it.
It is easy for me, and everyone I suspect, to focus too much on the immediate cost and not on the long-term vision. Or to focus too much on the tool and think that just owning it will make you better. It will, to a point. But so will education. And so will practice. And so think of tools as just one of many ways that you can nudge yourself forward. Inseparable from the rest of it. Mysterious as anything whether it's you or the tool or the combination of the two.
Wherever you are, that's the place to start. Where you go is up to you. Whether you have money or not. Whether you have a local option for learning or not. Whether you have the time to practice a lot or not. Piece together your own path forward.
I hope our paths meet.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.