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Nothing beats an ice pick or awl for tracking down rotting wood in or around your home. Just jab the suspected wood with the point of the tool. If the point won't penetrate easily, the wood is sound, but if it sinks into the wood, rot is probably present. Common places for rot are the bottoms of exterior door frames, bottoms of porch posts, windowsills and other surfaces that are exposed to a great deal of moisture.

The first step in any home improvement project is to deck yourself out in proper safety gear, beginning with eyewear, said Tom Kraeutler, co-host of "Money Pit," a syndicated radio show in New York.

Designs have become hipper as more women take up home-repair work, he said. "Safety glasses have come a long way from the big old plastic ones we used to wear in biology class."

Nails can glance or pop out when least expected, especially while hammering cross-grain wood, said JoAnne Liebeler, co-author of "Do It Herself: Everything You Need to Know to Fix, Maintain, and Improve Your Home."

Wearing safety glasses for any kind of saw work or hammering is essential, she said. "It seems like overkill, but it isn't."

It's also important to wear work gloves, knee pads and back braces for heavy work, Liebeler said. Make sure clothes fit well to avoid problems around power tools, and keep earplugs stocked to protect hearing in the event of prolonged noise.

For projects that involve sanding or generating airborne contaminants, keep a dust mask or the appropriate respirator on hand, depending on the toxin, Kraeutler said.