Make three decisions first
A little planning will save you a lot of effort. There are three factors to keep in mind: who will gather your materials for production, whether you care more about "wasted" profession time while levelling or at the end-game, and how you obtain your endgame recipes. Remember: for the purposes of this discussion, the gathering professions are mining, skinning, and herbalism. The production professions are alchemy, blacksmithing, inscription, engineering, leatherworking, tailoring, jewelcrafting, and enchanting. You'll see right off the bat that you'll need 6 characters if you have no professions repeated across more than one character. But it rarely works out that way.
Who's gathering during the end game?
I like grouping my gathering skills on the same characters, as much as possible. For this reason, my "gatherer" tends to be a herbalist and a miner, while my skinner is also a herbalist. The reason for this particular combination is that most mining nodes are not where you find animal mobs. (This is anecdotal experience only; maybe someone has a spreadsheet showing there are .577% more animals near mining nodes than near herb nodes.) My behavior is that I fly around looking for mining nodes and only land when there's something worthwhile on the ground. If it's a mining node, there will be no animals. If I'm looking for mobs to skin, I'm more likely to come across herbs than metal.
There is no class the equal of druids for gathering materials. They are easily the most powerful gathering class. This is because of the unparalleled mobility offered by their epic flight form and their aquatic form. Druids don't even need to shapeshift in order to gather nodes. That makes their reaction speed faster when doing a competitive gathering circuit and it means they have better raw gathering time. Their sea form has no parallel in any other class.
Where do you want to burn your time?
That means the best solution to gathering (so far) is having two druids. However, if your other crafters don't have any gathering skills, they'll be walking past all those sweet, sweet nodes on their way to level 80. By comparison, if your production crafters do have a gathering skill, they'll have only one, which means you'll be missing two types of resource during gathering runs at endgame. So, where are you going to burn your time? Gathering at endgame or while leveling your production toons?
I choose to waste the time during leveling. In theory, that leveling process is finite. It will end when all of your characters have all of their recipes that are dependent on level or dungeon completion. Heck, leveling stops cold when you're level 80. It can not expand into infinity.
By comparison, your gathering characters can be gathering almost non-stop. They could be gathering for forty hours a week for untold numbers of weeks. It may never stop! It may extend infinitely into the future until WoW is shut down in blaze of gamer angst.
So while I can't guarantee which option is shorter, I do know that wasting time in the endgame could expand to a greater amount than the leveling process.
How are you getting your recipes?
In contemporary Wrath of the Lich King, you need to decide now whether you're learning the Icecrown craftables. If you're going to sell those items, then your best route for obtaining the recipes would be to have the appropriate production crafters be druids or paladins. This is because they are the only two classes able to switch between all three raid roles.
I've never heard of a tank who couldn't find a raid, nor have I heard of a healer who couldn't find a raid. At least, not on a long term basis. Eventually, tanks and healers will find a raid who needs one or the other. However, damage characters won't always have that luxury. Damage characters tend to get booted from a raid roster before other folks. They have it kind of rough that way.
Being a druid or a paladin gives you the most role flexibility. Druids are even more superior in this regard, since they can also choose to be a ranged damage class or a melee damage class. They can truly do every job in the game. As such, since your only goal is getting those recipes and then moving on with your life, choose flexibility.
Plan your characters next
For the reasons I laid out above, your "best bet" for a crafting empire would be to have 5 druids. They have the added bonus of adapting very well as they "grow up" -- they have a lot of self-healing, regeneration, and general tactics to help fly through the levels. But the problem with with that plan is ... are you really going to level the same class five times in a row?
If you mix up your choice of classes, then you'll save yourself a little tedium. I grabbed a death knight to minimize the number of times I was lapping the level track. It saved me one trip from 55 to 80. I also have a paladin, for the sake of a little variety. I lastly went mage for a subtle benefit: a mage can teleport among the capital cities. While Dalaran makes that ability a little less important, the flexibility afforded by a mage can't be understated. And along the way, I even managed to pick up a little gold in tips for teleporting other folks.
Choosing which characters will comprise your crafting empire isn't too hard, but it's something you should put some thought behind. It's not easy levelling five different characters, so you should make sure you're spending your time wisely.
Next week, we'll start talking about some tips and tricks for supporting your empire while going through the actual levelling process.
Each week, Insider Trader takes you behind the scenes of the bustling subculture of professional craftsmen, examining the profitable, the tragically lacking and the methods behind the madness.