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Hello. Thanks for contacting us. You are right, it is a tedious process. But do-it-yourselfers can at least get basic knowledge on how its done. There's a series of useful tutorials at this link: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/process/search/
Here's another good resource prepared by a major university: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/engin/patent-tutorial/tutorial/pattut.html
And here's a database that can be helpful -- but must be cross-checked against official databases (for instance, the United States Patent and Trademark
Office or similar agencies in other countries). http://www.patentlens.net/patentlens/
You may also get some joy from the World Intellectual Property Organization database:http://patentscope.wipo.int/search/en/search.jsf
The thing is, patent searchs only go so far. There are legal and technological subtleties that would eventually require legal analysis. Patent examiners usually have both law degrees and scientific or engineering degrees in particular fields. Indeed, lawsuits often focus on technical subtleties that patent examiners may not recognize (or may think are nonsensical, but they get into court because the pass the minimal standards to not be frivolous).
For this reason, people are wise to eventually bring a lawyer in. Understandably, many inventors have enough trouble funding their research and development expenses -- and legal fees can be a stretch if not impossible.
There are some services that at least do a technical search at lower cost than a lawyer charges. While they may miss subtleties (particularly those involving legal distinctions), they can be a useful, cheaper alternative for at least the early-on research. However, lawyers eventually will be needed to ensure that the combined legal and technological presentation of the invention
is in a form that best avoids "prior art."
I wish you every success with your project!