CHILDREN'S FAVOURITE IS CREATED USING TECHNIQUES DATING FROM VICTORIAN TIMES
The smell of wood, fresh leather, paint and glue mingle in the one storey workshop of rocking horse makers Steve and Alison Smith. Shelves containing thick planks of wood line the walls, curly wood shavings and sawdust crunch underfoot, and all around the room are horses in various stages of construction. A box of smoothly carved heads sits atop a cabinet. Hanks of horse hair, which will be used to make manes and tails, hang from a row of hooks. Five unpainted horses are lined up waiting for their transformation into sleek dappled grey steeds with jingling leather bridles and burnished brown leather saddles.
Here in the Shropshire countryside, Steve, Alison and a small team of skilled workers produce approximately 25 rocking horses each year. Steve makes the horses from wood, and Alison, a trained artist, paints them. “We are constantly trying to recreate horses that are as lifelike as the ones made by the Victorians,” says Steve. “We’re replicating a particular style of workmanship to achieve that incredible quality and attention to detail.”
The couple have been making rocking horses since 1985 when a friend asked Steve if he could make one for his first child. “I had trained as an engineer, but wood carving had been a hobby since I was a kid,” explains Steve. “We had an old horse in the family and I copied it. It was falling apart so I took every stick to bits and studied it. That first horse was a success, and other people started to ask for them. We turned the hobby into a business and sales grew quickly.”
Alison and Steve were living on a narrow boat, a 72-foot craft called the Heather Bell, at the time. At first they worked on board. “We had planks of wood delivered to the boat,” recalls Steve. “But after a year and a half, when our baby daughter Heather arrived, demand for the horses was growing and we decided we needed to move to dry land.”
By 1992, they had relocated to Shropshire, where they still live in a lock keeper’s cottage by a canal. The horses are now made in a small workshop six miles away and the couple have a showroom in a converted chapel just a few minutes walk along the lane from their home. “We have up to five staff who help us with painting, carving and office work, depending on demand,” explains Steve. “The busiest time is in the run up to Christmas.”
The couple estimate they have made around 1,500 horses. The design of the horses is based on a traditional pattern. “In Victorian times a company called FH Ayres made the best quality horses. They are regarded by collectors and craftsmen as the ideal,” says Alison. “The company was in production from 1857 to the end of World War II. We try to copy these horses and replicate the craftsmanship as closely as we can. They were beautifully made and had a certain finesse.”
Initially, rocking horses were made as an aid to teach basic equestrian skills and balance to children from privileged families. Traditionally, it was important that the proportions of each horse were accurate and this is something that Alison and Steve strive for today.
From planks of wood
Each horse starts life as a simple plank of rough wood approximately 13ft (4m) long. A mixture of different woods are used to make one animal. Beech, a hardwood, is used for the legs, which need to be strong to take the weight of the rider. The larger horses can bear an adult. Tulip wood, which is easier to carve, is chosen for the heads and sturdy pine or oak is used for the stands. Oak stands are much heavier and stronger than pine. Pine is strong, but lighter to lift. “We do also make rockers, but stands are safer and give a better ride, so they tend to be more popular,” says Steve. The smallest horses they make are 41in (104cm) high and 54in (137cm) long. The largest ones measure 57in (145cm) high and 70in (178cm) long.
Steve usually makes up to five horses at any one time, working in batches. Cardboard templates are cut out in the shapes of the body, neck, front and hind legs. These are traced on to the wooden planks. A band saw with a rotating blade is used to cut around the shapes. Steve now begins to assemble the horse. He first makes a coffee table shape, a flat-topped body with four legs jointed into the wood. The jointing is done by cutting a slot in a plank of wood at ten degrees. A corresponding slot is cut into the top of each of the horse’s legs. The two pieces are then slotted together.
A neck is then fixed to the body, using glue and clamps to secure it. Twelve blocks of wood called muscle blocks are stuck on to the neck and clamped until the glue dries. These give a three-dimensional effect while replicating the powerful curves of a horse’s neck. “The muscle blocks are square shaped, so at this point it does not look much like a horse,” says Steve.
He now turns his attention to the horse’s body. This is transformed from a set of sharply angled blocks into a smooth torso. He uses five different grades of sandpaper, starting with a coarse one, and then using progressively finer ones. Some of the sanding is done by hand, but he also uses a handheld power sander to refine the wood. Next, the head is glued on with a specialist glue which dries in 20 minutes.
The art of creating heads
Steve takes special care when carving the horse’s heads. “Each is unique. I am always trying to make the next head the best one yet,” he says. He has no precise patterns and instead carves them largely freehand. “There is a template for the basic shape, but you have a picture in your head of how you can create something that is beautiful. It is the most artistic part of the making process.”
Steve uses three differently sized gouges to shape the head, creating flared nostrils, the open mouth and the undulating cheeks of the horse. Concave holes are made for the eyes to be inserted later. “Things do go wrong sometimes,” he says. “You might get the nostril in the wrong place or the head is not symmetrical.” In the situation where, for instance, a nostril is not in symmetry then re-carving can save the head, but if it is too far out, the head will be discarded. On a good day, Steve can carve five heads.
A stand is made using four flat pieces of pine. These are fixed in a cruciform shape, then screwed and glued together. Two holes are drilled at the intersection of the cruciform. On the lathe, two circular posts are shaped or turned and these slot upright into the previously made holes. A piece of flat wood with two holes corresponding to those in the base is made. The horse will eventually rock from this on two swing irons.
Applying the paint
Before this happens the horse must be painted. Alison applies a white, oil-based undercoat which is slightly transparent to bring out the grain of the wood. This is left to dry overnight. She sands the paint and applies a good quality wood filler to correct any small gaps or imperfections. After it has dried, she sands the horse again and paints on a grey undercoat. This process is repeated three times to make it very durable. Now the horse is ready for dappling. Using a black water-based acrylic paint, Alison works with a round stippling brush, around 2/3in (17mm) in diameter, to create the stencilled effect. “I might use a larger brush if I am working on one our bigger horses,” she explains. On a new horse she copies the traditional dappling pattern of the Ayres horses.
She uses a dark red paint to add the nostrils, mouth and inner ears. “It is a three- to four-day process, including the drying times,” says Alison. Once the painting is finished, the horse is ready to be varnished. She applies a polyurethane oil-based varnish, tinted with a yellow hue to give an aged effect. Again, she repeats the process three times, sanding the horse in between to create a super-smooth finish.
Glass eyes are inserted into the pre-made sockets. These are sourced from a family firm that has been making glass eyes for 200 years, originally for the teddy bear industry.
The next stage is to add the distinctive flowing mane and tail. Real horse hair is used for this. Customers can choose from light grey, mixed grey, brown or black. “The manes arrive in our workshop with the hair still on the tanned skin,” explains Steve. One horse’s tail provides sufficient hair for two rocking horse manes. The mane is cleaned, shampooed, brushed and cut to suit the horse’s size. Glue and nails are then used to attach it to the neck.
“Kate, who works with us, really enjoys transforming the manes,” explains Steve. “They feel like silk when she has finished brushing and cleaning them. She often takes them home to give them extra care.”
Ready to ride
Now the horse is ready for its bridle and saddle. These are leather with proper buckles and a steel or brass bit. “Our bridles are made for us by a skilled craftsman from the famous leather-working city of Walsall,” says Alison. “They are removable, and are just like a smaller version of a bridle you’d find on a real horse.”
Two styles of saddle are available. The sewn or padded saddles, traditional on rocking horses from their earliest days, are fixed to the back of the horse with nails. Steve and Kate often make these themselves in the workshop using an industrial-sized sewing machine to shape and stitch the leather. For the deluxe horses, a removable saddle, complete with stirrup leathers and irons, is handmade in Walsall in the West Midlands.
Finally, the horse is ready to be placed on to the stand. A hoof rail, a long piece of wood stretching between the front and back legs, is bolted on. There are two rails for each hoof. Swing irons are inserted and the horse is lifted up and placed on to its stand. A metal bearing strip goes under each swing iron and is held in place with a metal cap and four bolts, to ensure that it is secure. “Kate will trim and comb the hair, and check the leather work for any marks,” says Steve. “We then attach a brass breastplate, which is customised with an inscription for each customer and given an individual registration number.”
The horse can then be delivered to its new home. “We do some of the deliveries ourselves, because it is very satisfying to see people’s reactions when their horse arrives,” says Steve. “Customers who choose a rocking horse are always lovely people with a passion for horses. Some people save up for months, or even years, to buy one. It has often been their childhood dream to own a traditional rocking horse. We also have parents buying them for their children as presents, and bridegrooms purchasing them for brides, and vice versa. Our customers are always 100 per cent thrilled with their horses, and that makes all our hard work and attention to detail worthwhile.”
Words: Fiona Cumberbatch Photography: Clive Doyle
PAIR PRODUCE CURVED WOODEN BOWLS BURNISHED WITH PRECIOUS METALS
A bed of spiralling wood shavings forms a dome on the floor of woodturner Richard Mills’ workshop in Kent. Clamped to a motorised lathe is a partly-turned wooden bowl. A film of fine dust clings to the timber and tools on surrounding surfaces. The lathe clatters into action when the motor is turned on, and the bowl spins round rhythmically. More curled slivers of wood collect on Richard’s arm as he holds his bowl gouge against the revolving wood. The sharp point of this long scoop-shaped chisel slices small ridges off the timber.
In contrast, his friend and business partner Lenore Zavitz works at a quiet table in her home, 20 minutes’ drive away. Here, she gilds the wooden bowls Richard has turned and polished. The gold leaf she uses is delicate and ultra-fine, requiring a clean, moisture-less and draught-free space.
Richard has been woodturning since he was 12. “My father is a carpenter and I took an interest when he bought a lathe, so he taught me,” he says. During the day he works in the City of London. His evenings and weekends, however, are spent woodturning. His aim is to be able to pursue his craft full-time. “I love the beauty you find in wood,” he says. “I get to see all sorts of colours inside the wood that other people never see.”
Lenore trained at the London School of Picture and Frame Conservation. For nine years she worked as an oil-painting and frame restorer. The gilding techniques she uses on Richard’s bowls are those she uses on picture frames.
The pair met eight years ago, but only formed their company making gilded bowls in 2014. “When the economy slowed down, there wasn’t a lot of restoration work, so I was looking to broaden my range,” says Lenore. “Richard often gave me bowls as presents, and I thought they would be nice with gold leaf on them because curved surfaces complement the gilding best. He didn’t want me to cover the grain at first but, once he saw one, he was sold on the idea.”
The company’s name, Moth and Mirror, comes from the combination of wood and metal. “The moth represents the organic material, which is the wood, and the mirror represents the reflective gilding,” explains Lenore.
Sourcing the wood
They use a wide variety of woods for the bowls. Richard keeps an eye out for spare lumber from any trees he sees being felled. He points down the lane to a house where a large cedar once grew. “I used to see it when I was growing up,” he says. “Then one day I heard a chainsaw. It was being cut down, and the tree surgeon gave me some offcuts.”
Newly-felled wood is chopped into manageable pieces, which aids drying, and the ends sealed with paraffin wax. “Moisture escapes faster from the ends, so the wax enables it to exit in a uniform manner. That helps to stop it cracking,” says Richard. “Then I store it in ventilated garden sheds until it’s dry. It dries at a rate of about one inch every year, but that depends on species, thickness and conditions. A moisture meter is a valuable tool. If it has a moisture content of more than 15 per cent it will split and warp after it is turned.”
The majority of the wood he uses comes from timber specialists. It has been kiln dried and cut into rough rounds, called blanks, ready for turning.
The bowl Richard is creating today is made with wood from a London plane tree. This is known as lacewood, because the pale, intricate patterns in the grain resemble lace. “It’s gorgeous stuff,” says Richard. “I like the way the wood talks to you. You’ve picked the area you want to work, and dried it for several years. Then, as you’re turning, you come across defects and knots you want to cut out and others you want to keep. All that leads to the shape needed. I love big natural splits that happen in the growing. They add an eye-catching feature and make it unique. If the bark is nice, I might keep that as a natural edge on a bowl.”
Sometimes, however, a split can be detrimental. He has suffered a black eye and dented the workshop door when bowls have flown off the lathe when his gouge has caught a split in a piece of wood.
Turning the bowl
Richard’s bowls range in diameter from 3in to 24in (8-60cm). Once a piece of wood is dry, he cuts it into a rough circular shape on a bandsaw. The centre of the area to be cut is marked and a circle scratched with a pair of verniers, a measuring compass. Then the middle of one surface is flattened with a sander or plane. This will be the bottom of the bowl. A face-plate is screwed on to hold it on the lathe. This is only temporary and the screw holes will disappear when the inside is turned.
Most of the work is done using a sharp ½in (16mm) bowl gouge. For small bowls, a ¼in (7mm) gouge is used. To keep the tool steady, a hinged metal rest is fixed in place approximately ⅓in (1cm) in front of the section of bowl he is cutting. As he works, Richard pushes the shaft of the bowl gouge firmly against the rest with one hand. He holds the handle equally firmly with his other hand.
“A bowl is naturally pleasing to the eye, and I like them chunky with fat rims,” he says. This lacewood bowl measures 15½in (39cm) across. It will have a 3in (7.6cm) flat rim with a 1in (2.5cm) U-shaped rim in the centre of that.
Richard starts with the base. Turning on the motor, the bowl starts to spin. In the early stages, a slow speed is needed as the shape is uneven and rocks the lathe. The gouge makes a fast hissing sound as it slices into the timber. Shavings pile up as Richard moves the tool from the base towards the rim to form the bowl’s curved outer profile.
“I make small light cuts, taking off a very thin layer at a time,” he says. “Once it’s circular and smooth, you can turn up the speed, which allows a quicker cut.” He keeps refining it until he is satisfied.
Before the inside of the bowl can be worked, it needs to be reversed and clamped to the lathe. A chuck, a metal clamp with jaws, is used to do this. First an indent is cut in the base to hold the chuck. This will also act as a stand for the finished bowl. Richard cuts the recess with the bowl gouge initially. He then uses a skew chisel, which has an angled blade, to cut the inner edge with precision.
The surface is planed so the rim will be flat. Richard then digs out the middle. He makes deep cuts with the bowl gouge, working from the outside in. Once that is complete, he cuts a U-shaped channel within the wider flat rim of the bowl. This is the section that will be gilded.
Some of the bowls are fully gilded on the inside and some are gilded in special rims such as this one. “It’s simply a case of artistic preference,” says Lenore.
“Once I’ve finished with the tools, I sand the bowl, working through at least six grades of sandpaper from coarse to fine,” says Richard. “I hand-hold it against the turning bowl to remove tool marks so you see just the shape and grain.” A small cloud of sawdust forms around the bowl as it spins.
The friction created by sanding produces heat. Too much can cause micro-fracturing in the wood, which can not be eliminated, unlike some small natural splits, which can be glued. As soon as he feels his hand getting warm, Richard pulls the sandpaper away.
“Next, I rub on sanding sealant with a rag. That brings out the grain a bit more and fills any minor imperfections. When that’s dry, I go over it with very fine steel wool, then apply wax polish to help resist finger marks. I then hold a rag against the spinning bowl to give a high sheen. It feels like silk at the end.” The bowl takes up to five hours to complete.
“Turning is very therapeutic and relaxing,” he says. “My favourite bit is sealing and waxing it, because you really see the grain, which can be stunning.”
Now the bowl is ready for gilding. Richard and Lenore meet every week to discuss ideas and sketch possible designs. He nearly always has a batch of bowls ready for gilding. The actual number can vary from three to 20 a week, depending on their sizes.
There are two forms of gilding, oil and water. Lenore uses oil gilding. “I don’t do water gilding because it requires layers and layers of preparation using animal glue dissolved in water,” she says. “The advantage is that you can burnish it to a high sheen afterwards. But there is an extra cost for the time it takes.”
Oil gilding involves brushing oil size onto the dish or rim of the bowl. Size is a form of slow-drying adhesive made from boiled-down linseed oil, which has been used by gilders for centuries. “You leave it to go off for about an hour, though the time depends on environmental factors. I never gild on a rainy morning because it’s too humid and won’t go off. On a sunny morning, it can go off in 10 minutes.
“If the bowl is still too wet, the gold ends up a mess and will probably come off. If it’s too dry, it won’t adhere. I keep touching it until it just catches the skin. That’s when it’s ready. I use the back of my finger so I don’t leave prints.”
She uses 24-carat gold leaf, bought from British gilding suppliers, in 3in (8cm) squares. It used to be beaten with hammers until it was thin. Now, it is flattened with rollers.
“All the yellow gold I use is double thickness,” she says. “It handles better, doesn’t curl up on itself as much, and you get a better surface. But even that is so thin you can see light through it. You’re intimidated by the gold at first because it is the purest gold you can get.”
Great care is needed. Opening a door, laughing or coughing can cause the leaf to wrinkle or blow away.
As well as gold leaf, Lenore uses silver, copper and champagne gold. “The copper leaf is a bit thicker because copper is cheaper,” she says. “It has a warm smoulder as opposed to the flame that gold produces. Like silver, it needs sealing with clear gilding lacquer because it will go black exposed to the air. Champagne gold is 22.5-carat gold with palladium in it, and has a warmer hue than yellow gold.”
To gild the U-rim of the lacewood bowl, Lenore cuts the leaf into squares the size of large postage stamps on a suede gilding cushion. The cushion makes it easier to cut, and the leaf does not adhere to suede. She makes sure she never touches the gold by hand. “Getting to grips with not being able to touch it is very difficult. It will stick to your fingers and pretty much everything else.”
Instead, she uses small, flat, badger-hair brushes, called tips, to apply the leaf. “The gold has to adhere to the tip, so I put Vaseline on the back of my hand, then touch it with the tip before I pick up the leaf.” She lifts each piece and gently positions it in the U-rim. It clings on contact, but she uses a blusher brush to tamp it into place. This process is repeated until the rim is covered with gold, and takes over an hour. Two more layers are applied in the same way. The bowl is left to dry overnight between applications. The excess on the edge is removed carefully with a scalpel and steel wool.
Now, the wooden bowl gets its final polish. The base is then imprinted with their maker’s mark, a moth in a circle, using a specially-made branding iron.
“Gold is fabulously beautiful. If you leave it alone, it will be brilliant for hundreds of years,” says Lenore. “I start to move more slowly when I use it. There’s a delicate flow to the process that is quite meditative. We both have a similar artistic vision and a strong sense of what a piece is going to be like as soon as it’s on Richard’s lathe.”
The results are desirable timeless objects, handmade from natural materials using ancient techniques.
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Clive Doyle
A HERTFORDSHIRE CRAFTSWOMAN WITH A PASSION FOR RECYCLING BRINGS NEW LIFE TO DISCARDED PLANKS AND PALLETS
A pile of timber is stacked outside a wooden workshop beneath an evergreen tree. Planks of wood of varying age, condition and length, are all heaped together. A few feet away lie piles of pallets, drying in the Hertfordshire sunshine. It is all castoff wood that has outgrown its original purpose.
In the careful hands of Vicki Brand, it will re-emerge sanded, polished and converted into useful furniture. At her workshop near Hatfield, she specialises in bringing new life to this worn out, unloved wood. Nothing goes to waste. “I use anything I can lay my hands on,” she says. “I’ve developed a good relationship with farmers, workshops and scaffolders who have wood for me.”
New life for wood
Finding new uses for old wood is a passion for Vicki. “Pallets and scrap wood are cut up and burned at building sites. It seems such a horrible waste to discard it,” she says. “It might have come to the end of its original purpose, but it can continue to be useful.”
Her enthusiasm for breathing vitality into unwanted wood began when she moved to a small cottage in Hertford four years ago. There was only a minimal amount of storage and she failed to find furniture that matched the dimensions of the space available. She had never made anything before but believed her practical nature would enable her to produce her own furniture. “I used an old crate to make a trunk that fitted my cottage,” she says. “It was unique and looked good. Next I wanted a corner cupboard for my bathroom. I cut up an old cupboard my parents were about to throw away, and remade it. I now have several of my own pieces at home including shelving units, storage crates, a side table, coffee and kitchen tables.”
The decision to turn her hobby into a business came just over two years ago, after making a coffee table for her mother. “Some friends saw it and wanted one. As people saw what I was making, orders for bespoke furniture started arriving. That’s when I decided to create my own business.”
She has no formal furniture-making training, but has benefitted from her father’s advice. “Dad is good at carpentry. He inspired me, and has been an excellent teacher,” she says. “Now I prefer to learn on the job and figure out solutions to new problems. I started off making trunks, then I moved on to kitchen tables and picture frames. Last year I made a picnic table.”
Building a workshop
For the first 18 months, she was based in her parents’ garage. Then in January this year, she built her own workshop on the site of her family’s horticultural business. “It took me three weeks to build, including re-concreting the floor. Old fence posts were used for the corners. I made the window frames with glass from an old greenhouse.”
The large doors on the wooden structure were built from an eclectic range of planks. When they are tied back, the sun’s rays penetrate the building. They allow her to wheel her machinery outside to use.
Light shining through windows in the roof illuminates the work surfaces within the L-shaped workshop. Curled wood shavings line the floor, while layers of wood dust coat every surface. Dried-out wood awaiting reinvention is piled up against one wall. Nearby, a dustpan and brush are propped up next to wall-mounted storage boxes housing nails and screws. Next to them are rows of ordered and readily-accessible hand tools. “I have extremely sharp chisels for fine work and an extremely good router for picture frames. This creates an indent for the glass to sit in,” she says. Many of her tools are recycled, including her router which came from a builder, and a mitre saw from the family nursery. Her most expensive tool is a bench saw that cost £500. This motorised circular saw is mounted beneath a worktable, with the blade protruding through an opening.
Cleaning the wood
When the wood first arrives, it needs a considerable amount of work before it is usable. Much of it has come from building sites. Old screws must be ground off, tar and spray paint purged by a sanding process. The nails and screws are recycled, and used to hold the furniture together. The pallets are pulled apart with a long-handled implement her father made. “I use leverage with the tool and my body weight to break them up. By the time I have finished, they are not recognisable as pallets,” she says. Pallets that come from building sites have hardened patches of cement on them, which is removed by sanding. Vicki repeatedly sands and polishes the wood, until it is unrecognisable from its origins. The scaffold boards are used for the large pieces of furniture such as tables. The pallets become signs and legs.
Old scaffold wood, usually pine but occasionally oak, is durable. Ageing and being exposed to the elements causes the planks to turn grey. Uneven recycled wood requires sanding by machine to level it out and create a flat surface. Despite splits and knots, by investing sufficient effort, she restores them to a standard indistinguishable from new wood.
Working by instinct
One of her pieces is a coffee table with crossed legs, built with scaffold planks. “I select flat sections for the table top then leave them outside for two weeks so the sun dries them out. This is essential as wet wood shrinks when put together,” she says.
“Tar and cement are removed with a grinder, followed by three stages of sanding. To start with, I use 80 grit sanding paper. This has the roughest finish so removes more. It is followed by the finer grades, 120 then 240. After each stage, the wood becomes smoother and more suitable.”
Vicki often relies on her intuition when creating her pieces. For the coffee table, she works by instinct to create the angles for the legs. “I know the angle I need because I’ve been taught to do this by eye.”
However, before she cuts the plank which is to be used for the top of the table she takes careful measurements. She does this twice to ensure they are accurate.
“Once the plank is cut, I screw the top into the legs. Once finished, the table needs a final re-sand because of the holes drilled for the screws. I use a fine 250 grit for this. Then I apply two layers of beeswax by hand. It takes two days to complete a table like this.”
Vicki’s growing knowledge and experience help her solve more complex problems. “Before I would have wondered how a crate was put together,” she says. “Now I can look at a big piece of furniture and know what I need to do. I won’t make something that I wouldn’t want in my own home. If I make a mistake, I learn from it.
“Usually I just go ahead and make the furniture. Sometimes, however, more precision is needed. Intricate pieces have to have the angles and dimensions right so I might sketch them out first.”
Experimentation is crucial in generating the right image for her furniture. Vicki makes paler pieces for customers who favour a driftwood appearance. Her darker, stained, waxed wood has a rustic look. Unable to obtain large, black bolts for dark furniture, and to match the ironmongery, she found a way of ageing new ones by dipping them in gun blue. This liquid is used to protect steel against rust, and results in a blackening appearance. “The darkening effect is instant,” she says.
“I design everything and make it from scratch to order. Using new wood would be quicker, but I can renew something old, giving people furniture that is unique,” she says. “The wood is so interesting and no two pieces are the same. The grain and worn areas enhance each item.
“The wood is harder to make things with because it has been thoroughly exposed to the elements. But it is very fulfilling to be able to turn something that is knotty and no longer used into functional, bespoke furniture, giving it a new lease of life.”
Words: Sandra Smith Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Vicki Brand's woodwork originally appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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