I'll try to keep my introduction to the forum as brief as proper introductions can be, please forgive me I can be fairly long-winded.
I don't attend forums regularly, in fact I shy away from them more often than not even browsing general questions online. I feel this is important to mention as I want very much to be a part of this wonderful community sharing a beautiful hobby that, unfortunately, far too many people never experience.
I've always thought astronomy and such was neat as a kid, drooled over the chance to look through telescopes but never had one of my own. Somewhere shortly before my teenage years there was a family reunion at a family lake and an older cousin brought his telescope and for the life of me do not remember what it was but I distinctly remember a tiny CRT TV hooked up to it and the moment he slewed over to Saturn and Jupiter. I was fascinated and wanted to see everything.
Teenagers do what teenagers do and I had other hobbies get in the way of pursuing lifelong and more meaningful hobbies. Fast forward to recently, a friend knew I was handy with scopes of another variety and handed me a dirty old 60mm Jason 311 complete with box, wooden mount, eyepieces, and filters! He wanted to see if I could clean it up so I quickly started and tested my work, giving me absolutely impressive views of a few planets and reconstructing what I thought was possible in my backyard. He offered to give it to me after I showed him every planet we could see last summer/early fall and I couldn't bear to take it from him.
In February after doing a lot of homework to dip my toes in the hobby I settled on a Meade 114 Mini Lightbridge f/3.95 and have been very impressed and frustrated at the same time, this is where my reasons for the post come into play. I knew instantly that the collimation was absolute garbage and suspected it would be as I mistakenly ordered it from an unnamed major online retailer that is known for having some rough warehousing practices, preemptively bought a laser collimator and a few Celestron X-Cel eyepieces and 3x and 2x X-Cel barlows.
I collimated as best as I could with the laser and an untrained eye and was absolutely blown away when I peeked at the Orion nebula in February. Mars seemed less impressive than the Jason telescope. Jupiter hits opposition and again I'm blown away at how much better it looked, albeit better at collimating, Saturn hits opposition and I have good and bad nights while seeing conditions have been decent. Spied a faint cigar galaxy and Bode's, peeped the Eagle nebula on a terrible night, gazed at a handful more nebula, and can't really resolve star clusters fainter than 5 or 6 more than faint smudges and blobs, yet. Most nebula have been very dim and hard to see any sort of shape. I've gazed upon many things that I had no idea what they were for lack of... something. I want to think I have the aperture for what I've tried to look at so far and I don't believe I have my hopes up too much for the nebula I've tried when comparing some peoples sketches with similar sized scopes but correct me if I'm wrong. I have access to very decent skies in town and excellent skies in a very short drive and am mindful about lights and eye adaptation.
I've recently figured out how to collimate the laser collimator, took the secondary through a major adjustment, and the skies have not given me the opportunity to re test my work since. I hoping this improves my DSO and star cluster wants for a scope of this limitation., I truly believe garbage collimation has made me more disappointed than anything further than the big planets (can't wait to check them again after messing with the secondary!) so I need advice there as well, do I need a Cheshire if I don't trust that I've 100% collimated the laser collimator? Any other tools to help? I want to ask before wrapping up money in tools I do not need. I haven't quite figured out the star test very well for this scope, very warbly images but I do try to make the black dot in the center stay concentric when attempting in the past. Again, I'm hoping my secondary adjustments pay off in a bunch of ways.
Planning for the future, I like Newtonians and this has not scared me away from them at all, even in bad collimation I was impressed with many things. Cats and Casses are appealing but I'd rather not focus so much on the planets? Refractors are awesome, but again I'm just concerned about seeing more DSO and star clusters? So for the future, should I bump up aperture in a small increment to 150 or 200? Go for broke with an 8" or 10"? Seriously consider a large achromatic refractor (APO is most likely out of budget), or something else entirely?
I understand so much of this is subjective, personal preferences, and etc. But I am asking for your opinion. What did you settle on and why? Did you also have a bad experience with collimation and have a story with it? What would you do if you were me, based on the information available? I'm open to absolutely any advice one could offer on anything above or anything I haven't mentioned.