> Should I purchase, say, the Epson 1800 and "do my own"; OR, is it more sensible to copy images to a CD and send the CD out having someone else do the printing?
Depends on how much time you have. You say that you love the "processing" of your images. If you're willing to spend that much time, the time spent printing will be at least as much fun and the product will be at least as good and probably far better.
The factors I see involved are:
1. expense- which is really more costly?
I'd say it's a wash, dollars for dollars. In terms of satisfaction, though, no contest. Printing your own stuff is immensely satisfying and well worth the short learning curve.
2. I won't be printing all the time--- the Epson may sit for months without being used. Will the ink dry up, clog, or whatever
My printers haven't, even with months of little use. Very low humidity is the enemy in this case, something you're not likely to encounter in Virginia. As long as you turn 'em off between sessions, few problems should arise.
3. Is it relatively easy to get really good prints?
Yes. My first prints had me saying WOW! Don't be discouraged by nay-sayers. Don't underestimate the advantage of the print-edit-reprint cycle. You learn fast this way.
assuming I embrace the expected learning curve? Mediocre won't do, so how "bad" is the learning curve?
Not bad at all, in my opinion. It's outrageous fun, too.
4. Is "do it yourself" printing a labor intensive process,
At first, yes. Once you're "dialled in", it's easy, repeatable, fun, satisfying and cheap.
meaning this--- WOULD IT BE BETTER TO SEND OUT THE IMAGE,
If you do, you'll learn little. If you print yourself, you'll learn lots and get better. There's nothing like printing an image you shot minutes before.
My current experience in printing is using an HP 950 3-in-1 printer. Pretty nice results, but I'm sure not nearly as good as I can expect from, say, the Epson 1800.
Probably true. A good inkset and quality printer are nothing short of inspiring. I've had nothing but good experiences printing my own stuff. I hate giving up control to a lab.
I like the challenge of "doing it myself", but truly, if I can get pro results very simply by sending out the CD images to a pro, I can't help think I may be saving myself a lot of frustration--- ?
The frustration is usually short-lived. The satisfaction lasts forever.
Once you've made some good prints, Most would recommend investing in a CIS, a Continuous Inking System. Once you buy in to this system, per-print costs drop to near zero and you can print with total freedom from the tyranny of ink prices. Systems from mediastreet.com or others will allow you to make archival pigment ink prints that will look fabulous, last forever and cost very little.
I have hundred-dollar Cibachrome prints hanging on my wall next to inkjet prints that I made for a few dollars. They give me equal satisfaction. The Cibas are fading, though. The inkjet prints aren't.
Just do it!