As a collector I feel I am a little behind as I only have about a bakers dozen. I am sure I am only considered an amateur given this tally, but I promise to do better.
At left I show a few from my collection, these are some of the more popular knives out there. In my travels it would seem that the Wells/Shipley is the most popular, while a Helvie can be found in most toolboxes (comfortable handle), the Denny is a good all around knife that comes with a rounded spine, the Dunkles come in many shapes and sizes, and the Butz detail is one of the most flexible out there (mine came unsharpened). Other brands are available (Lyons, Ferguson, Cape Forge, etc.) so a carver really has options. There are also custom knives being made out there as more carvers are experimenting in creating there own.
For many of us, we simply started with an inexpensive bench knife. The one shown below was sold at a
local lumber yard for around 10 dollars. The knife itself is of good quality, it was the first-time carver who was the issue with this tool. I grew up with a father and stepfather whose pocket knife was one tool always on hand. My father had me stripping bark off of sticks at an early age and my stepfather bought me my first pocket knife when I was in high school. My stepfather was a butcher by trade at the time and had him an Arkansas water stone he taught me to sharpen on. He tried to explain the method behind the sharpening but it really did not strike home. He taught me the "dime" method of sharpening. This method has the sharpener holding the spine of the blade about the thickness of a dime off of the stone while sharpening. This was to maintain the bevel and allow the knife to keep its edge while doing the utilitarian jobs I required of it, all the while maintaining its sharp edge. Of course in this cursory training I did not learn of the ever important 'wire edge'. So I purchased the above knife and a block of Basswood and off I went. Needless to say time has taught me better. If I could impart one piece of wisdom to the new woodcarver, it would be to simply learn what "woodcarving-sharp" is and how to sharpen, tune, and maintain your knife for the style of carving you plan on undertaking. Understanding this will make for a more enjoyable carving experience. These are subjects I hope to cover in better detail in the future, but for now let's just say I could have done it better.
You might ask that if I have learned so much about knives why I have so many different brands. I would say that I am always looking for the next great knife. After all of the years carving I am finally developing a style thats my own and with that style I require knives of different shapes and sizes. One of my traits is that I REALLY LIKE a rolling cut, this being where I curl and slice with the knife as I cut, and for me the best knife to do this with is a knife with a rolled spine. Some of my knives come that way (Denny), but others I modify when "tuning" to my style. It should be noted that modifying a blade will change its properties, in the case where I am taking metal off of the spine of the knife I am weaking the blade and it will tend to flex more. This is something to take into consideration as breaking a tip on a knife can become a common occurance.
Blade shape is another consideration when buying a knife, so knowing what you will use it for can help you decide if it truly is the knife for you. Each shape and style has different capabilities so understanding what you need is important. When unsure the best advice I can give is to attend a show where vendors will allow you to try several styles and shapes. I say vendors as plural because I would not recommend you listen to just a singular opinion, after all its about your hard earned dollars.
What about the metal? Many will tell you a certain type of "tool" steel is important for a good knife. I am definitely not a metalurgist nor will I ever claim to have a vast knowledge in this arena. But I would say that when you find a large number of carvers using a particular brand you can bet its a good one and it has stood up to the beating carvers can give their knives.
In closing let me say that you will find strong opinions when it comes to knives and a particular brand or shape of knife. If your budget is tight, I would recommend you listen to the opinions, but ultimately try as many as you can before making your decision.
As for my collection, well lets just say I hear Mr. Allen Goodman is making some mean knives...hmmm, I wonder if I skip lunch for a week, will that be enough????
Note: for a more detailed look at a greater selection of knives, check out Don Mertz's (Woodbee Carver) April 2009 thread. http://woodbeecarver.com/?m=200904&paged=2