• February 8, 2004

Stripping Paint and Refinishing Woodwork

Foolproof way to remove paint and stain wood

How To, Removing Paint, Stain, Woodwork

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Comments { 56 }
  1. Bill


    This is one of the best descriptions of the overall paint removal process!

    On my old house, a combination of heatgun for flat areas and chemical stripper for the smaller or more complex shapes was the ticket.

    Your sequence of events matches what we discovered exactly.

    Good luck and we’ll be watching.

  2. Dennis

    Fantastic! I agree with Bill…I have been boinking around the Internet looking for a description just like this…I am sure you have helped numerous people with your knowledge here. Again- wishing you all the best and keep up all your great effort…I can’t wait to see future improvements!

  3. heather

    Hi Bill! We have been following your progress over at 118 Henry Street (http://www.118henrystreet.net). You guys have done so much work, it is really coming along. Thanks for your message.

    heather + dave

  4. heather

    Thanks Dennis! It was your message that prompted me to finally write all this down. Best of luck with your own restoration project. Please keep in touch.
    heather + dave

  5. Mike

    Great job restoring the woodwork to a beautiful house! My wife and I moved into a just rehabbed foursqaure with some craftsman style woodwook on the first floor. The rehabbers stupidly splashed and smeared stain over the original varnish and then put on a coat of polyurethane. It could look a lot better with restoration work. Will the same removal techniques and chemical work for this as for your paint?

  6. heather

    Hi Mike!
    Thanks. Ugh! Since starting this site we have been emailed stories similar to yours. The chemical stripper Master Strip Formula A will take off polyurethane. We learned this fact the hard way when a little bit of stripper got on our floors around the base boards. My concern is that the chemical stripper will also damage the original stain used on your woodwork.

    There may be a way to remove the poly and new stain without damaging the original finish (if that is something you want to keep). I recommend posting your question on American Bungalow’s online forum (http://www.ambungalow.com). Those folks are so knowledgeable about old houses and they have ran into just about every problem imaginable.

    I wish you and your wife the best of luck and commend you on wanting to tackle the woodwork. It’s a big job!

  7. Kate

    Great descriptions. We’ve been using CitriStrip for our fir trim and it works quite well, with less fumigation required. But we’ve only got latex paint to deal with, and I think that’s more pliable.

  8. Robert Young

    Your woodwork looks great! I have a 1915 bungalow very similar to yours and I’m in the process of refinishing all of the woodwork. I’ve had a difficult time coming up with a stain color I’m happy with and really like the color of your wood. What exact stain formula did you use?

  9. Ivee

    I second Robert’s question! I’ve finally finished stripping and sanding my woodwork and would love to know what stain combination you used.

    Thank you,

  10. jessy

    You guys are fantastic!! We live in Brooklyn, NY, and are restoring an old brownstone. It needs about as much restoration as your place- your site is so encouraging.

    I have kind of an unrelated question to this blog- We have shutters and the wood where the hinges screw into them is stripped. Do you have a trick for this, or know of a product that we can use?

    Again, amazing site! Please keep posting! Thank you, Jess

    • Thomas

      I know this is a really old thread, but putting toothpicks in the holes from the screws that are stripped out will help the screws grab and is an easy fix. Works for loose door hinges among other things.

  11. Wensday

    I am stripping 6-8 layers of paint off a door in my 1922 home. I am using the Silent Paint remover and am down to the orginal finish. However, there is some residue left and some bits of paint. I am not having any luck getting this stuff off. When I pull too hard with the scraper after heating I am removing the original finish (it’s lighter than the area around it). I have tried reheating and area that is pretty much clean except for the residue and have burned the wood, I have tried several products (Opps, mineral spirits, linseed oil, etc). I did find someone who used denatured alcohol – haven’t tried that yet. To get to my question, I was talking to someone who does restoration in CA, he thought that the door may have been originally treated with milk paint (I live in Virginia and he said this was commonly used during this time). He said that milk paint is hard to get off – I am stuck, I have spent a small fortune so far and am getting ready to head back to the hardware store. Any ideas or suggestions? I really want to keep the original finish but after ready everything I think I am going to have to stain again and apply a shellac or varnish.

  12. heather

    Hi! We had that residue, too. Kind-of like a thin layer where you see wood in some areas and a thin layer of paint in others? We used denatured alcohol to get that off. We sponged denatured alcohol on and wiped an area clean, let it dry and went over it again (letting it dry in between) if necessary. If denatured alcohol doesn’t work you might consider trying a thin layer of chemical stripper.

    I have seen milk paint in one house here and it looks completely different then what I described above. The paint is really thick and mostly solid. Chemical strippers make it like a thick mess – kind-of bubbles up and is really sticky- but doesn’t come off. You might be able to see wood in a few areas but you see mostly paint. From your description, it doesn’t sound like milk paint to me. On the off chance it is milk paint, a company called Behlen makes a special stripper to remove it. I have also heard that lye removes milk paint.

    Using a tinted shellac could even out any variations in the finish and you might not need to restain. I’d so a test in a small area when you get to that step.

    Something I am thinking of trying is renting a high powered, professional steamer and steaming paint off. I recently read an article about that. We are going to try it in our bathroom. The plaster walls have been painted numerous times and we want to get down to the plaster. The article I read (maybe it was in This Old House) talked about using the steamer to strip paint off wood as well.

    Good luck! Don’t get discouraged.

  13. Don

    The milk paint you have may be “pickling” or “whitewash” and was made by dissolving shellac flakes in denatured alcohol.Sanding this material is futile and will take forever. It’s a very hard finish. I am restoring a 1950′s bungalo and all the fir trim was treated this way. After stripping all the layers of paint off I removed all the pickling by using alcohol on a rag. Using steel wool will get caught on the grain and can give you a life altering sliver if not careful. The best way is to rub cross grain. When all the pickling is removed sand with a hand held sander with the grain and never cross grain.

    Hope this works out for you and good luck.

  14. Sarah

    I just painted my sons bedroom a canary blue. I placed the blue tape on the baseboards, however some of the paint bled under the tape. How do I remove the paint without damaging the baseboards?


  15. Kathleen

    Great info here. Thank you all. Now my problem. We just bought an old house where the beams and rafters are stained dark dark brown in the room that will be our office. my husband washed them down but a lot of the stain ended up in the bucket. we let it dry and i just tried to paint over it (no i dont want the natural wood, just too dark in a room with small windows and these are not orig beams, possibly 20 yrs old.) but with the first stroke of white paint (undercoat) this latex paint just mixed with the brown stain and created a slightly lighter mess. no idea what the stain is though i am wondering if it isnt something like that wood stain you use to cover scratches on furniture–that never seems to dry. i also bought some oil based paint but havent tried it yet. does this stain need to be sealed in some way before painting..such as varnish first then oil based paint ..or latex? the house is very old but, as I mentioned, the beams are not.
    thank you all, i may be tired but am inspired.

  16. Andrea

    I am in the middle of a master bedroom/bathroom remodel which was originally constructed in 1955 as bonus/rumpus room on the other side of the garage separate from the rest of the house. The bedroom has always had a douglas fir beam and wood ceiling. The bathroom ceiling was sheetrocked but once that was removed we exposed the same wood and beam ceiling as the bedroom, which I would like to keep as part of the remodel even though it has a very different look from the honed marble and coffee bean caesarstone countertop we are installing. My contractor, without researching the steps to correctly seal and stain this part of the ceiling applied a cherry stain to the beams which is way too red and won’t match the deeper browns of the other materials. He states he would rather not sand and strip this off but suggests he’ll apply a darker stain..something in the walnut family. I read the posting from a couple of years ago about the stripping and refinishing process but I’m not sure we have that kind of time since other subcontractors are due to start. But I do like the recipe that was of 3 parts dark walnut to 1 part cherry and I’m wondering if we can use this to apply over the first coat of cherry he applied. Since I don’t know much about woods and finishes I have no idea if this is a feasible solution or will it look terrible and are we digging ourselves in deeper. I am thinking it might be better to paint over the beams the same color we’ll be painting the walls and leave the natural wood slats of the ceiling (he hasn’t touched those yet and they are a light, warm natural wood color). I would rather keep the wood ceiling and beams in their lighter natural color but since he already made the beams much darker I’m not sure if there is any turning back. Any quick suggestions before we spend a boat load of $$ would be greatly appreciated.

  17. heather

    Hi Andrea,

    Sorry for the delayed response. We have been on vacation for the past week. You should be able to put a darker stain over the first stain as long as it hasn’t been sealed with a varnish, etc. You might need to adjust the recipe by adding a little more dark walnut because the cherry stain your contractor applied will probably sho through. I’d test a small area with just the dark walnut first. If that doesn’t look right, keep adding in a little bit of cherry until you get the right shade – doing tiny test patches of color and letting them dry as you go.

    Good Luck!

  18. Dave

    Hello :) Ive just started some test batches using JASCO paint remover and also CitriStrip. The Citristrip didnt cut 4 layers of paint, but the JASCO brand did fine.

    Ive never heard of “Master Strip, Formula A Remover” before. Can you buy it at Lowes or someplace else? Did you feel this worked better than anything from Home Depot/Lowes? The JASCO I bought works pretty good. Thanks…. Dave

  19. heather

    Hi Dave.

    We used JASCO to strip our fireplace. That was before we found out about Master Strip. I think Master Strip is marketed more to contractors then to the general public. To my knowledge, it is not available at hardware /big box stores. I have seen it at a paint store frequented mainly by professional painters in down town LA.

    I have to tell you that Master Strip rocks! We haven’t found anything better. That said, JASCO would be the product we would use if Master Strip was not available to us. If you have a lot of wood to strip it is more convenient to purchase the 5 gallon drums.

  20. jenn

    If it is possible to respond as soon as possible that would be great. we are doing our living room and dining room. we were wondering if after sanding and then polyurethane should we not walk, move or be in the house for defumication reasoning due to the polyurethane or are we free after a period of time? what would that time limit be if there is one?

    Thank you for reading and helping us better our home

    jenn r

  21. Heather

    Hi Jenn. I am not sure from your post if you are talking about refinished hardwood floors or trim and other woodwork? With our floors, we waited 24 hrs after the final coat of poly was applied to make sure it had thoroughly dried. We refinished our wood trim with varnish which did not smell that great. We let the house air out for a few hours but were in the house that night. I’m not an expert, but my general rule of thumb when working with chemicals or paints is that if I get a headache the chemicals are getting to me and I need to provide better ventilation or go outside (get out of the environment).

  22. Sara


    You two are our inspiration!!! Whenever we get depressed about our 1930 restoration, all we have to do is visit your website and your determination and hard work lifts our spirits!
    We’ve been stripping and sanding the heart pine trim in our family room for the past several months, and started staining a test piece of baseboard just last night. The trouble is that, even with wood conditioner, we are running into blotchiness problems with the stain. I’ve consulted a local wood refinisher, and he suggested using a washcoat of sealer cut with thinner prior to staining, and also mentioned that residual chemical stripper may have soaked deep into the woodgrain and could be contributing to the problem. Did you have any problems like this when you were staining? I believe that douglas fir is a soft wood similar to pine. Thanks!!

  23. Carol Morgan

    I have been reading articles about staining woodwork for the last several years and all of them are just a little different regarding the process of removing old paint and what stains to use and how to apply them. I have been stripping my doors and woodwork for the past several years (only have 1 day a week to work on it) and I am almost to the point of being able to apply stain. Since you worked with a lot of vertical surfaces, what is the best way to protect the floor when you are applying the stain? Will a heavy duty tarp be enough? Any help would be appreciated.


  24. Heather


    Hi! I recommend taping off the parameters of the floor with wide painters tape and then putting down protection for the floor. We used a roll of thick paper, kind-of like butcher paper and taped that to the floor. As long as you are able to secure the tarp that should work well, too.

    Best of luck with your project!

  25. Larry

    Hello Heather -

    I really need to talk to you in regard to your bleaching process and what you used.

    PLEASE contact me at:

    correus @ yahoo.com


  26. Russell

    Just wanted to says thanks for the help. I’m refinishing the front room of our 1915 Bungalow in SF, CA. I’ve used your site numerous times. The tip on the 50/50 mineral/linseed oil did the trick for our fireplace.

    We used Peel Away 7 to take the paint off our fireplace brick and douglas fir. It doesn’t stink at all which was a big plus for me and it doesn’t burn if you accidentally get it on your bare skin. I could only find it at paint stores that catered to professional. You put it on like cake frosting and put a sheet of backing on top of it, the next morning you just “peel away” and the paint goes onto the sheet. Took off years of paint in one go, took some time to learn how to use it but we loved it.

    One other thing. I used a product called Minwax wood conditioner on my douglas fir before staining at the recommendation of both the paint store and my father. dont ever do this. I applied the stain after using the conditioner and the stain just sits on top of the wood and doesn’t absorb in. after about having a nervous break down because i had just applied this to my entire room(I normally test ever step this time I didn’t, go figure), i called the minwax co. and they said “I would not have recommended putting that on your old growth wood”. long story short, the old growth wood is to dense and doesn’t need the conditioner. I had to sand my entire room down again to get it off. I used it because it says it evens out the stains, and on the can it says “when in doubt, use it”. I was also worried my stain would disappear like yours did so I figured better safe then sorry. i was just happy i could get it off my wood, only set me back a day. lol so you live and learn, hope this helps

  27. Lead Queen

    Wow! Your work looks beautiful. I was alarmed to read you recommend sanding painted wood to be stained later. If your painted wood surfaces were flat enough to use a sander, you could have used the Speedheater. It doesn’t generate the kind of toxic lead dust sanding does. It only heats paint and wood to max 600 degrees, unlike a heat gun at 1000+, so it doesn’t vaporize the lead in the paint. Lead paint removal is very dangerous and should be taken seriously. Read about it at http://www.epa.gov/lead.

  28. Elizabeth and David

    Wow! I cannot (but should) believe that someone actually painted all that gorgeous woodwork! People never cease to amaze me!
    We own a 1920 bungalow in Michigan. It has all douglas fir woodwork, painted. Fortunately, it only has 2-3 coats of paint. We plan on stripping this year!
    Great blog!

  29. amanda

    Thank you so much for posting this. I recently purchased and rehabbed a 1929 true brick bungalow that had oodles of white paint all over the original woodwork. I am grateful to have somewhere to start (our floors are a similar color to yours and your stain mix will be a good place for me to start). Thank you so much.

  30. Nina

    Wow, absolutely gorgeous dining room! I wish my Craftsman had one of those divider half-walls (not sure what their called) in between my dining and living rooms. I am stripping all my woodwork as well. I use Peel Away 7. It works pretty good, not really any smell, and don’t need gloves. But it’s $100/gal.

  31. JS


    Great article. We recently bought a 1908 Bungalow which unfortunately, the previous owners saw fit to re-stain the glorious chestnut trim in BLACK.

    Can you tell me about your bleaching process and what the product was?

  32. Mark

    When using a stain conditioner, don’t follow the directions on the can. Wait about a week for the conditioner to fully be absorbed and dry. Otherwise the stain can still go on blotchy with a softwood. Someone has a website describing this with photos, but the name escapes me.

  33. Nicki

    I have been searching all over the internet to find out the best way to strip 2 old doors in my foursquare home that have been painted. The only question I have is how long do I need to wait to stain the wood after I strip off the old paint? I am usually very handy and remodeling savvy but, this is a project I have never attempted before. I love the details that you gave here! I was nervous about taking this project on because the doors are original to the house and I would feel horrible if I ruined them! Thank you so much!!

    • Heather

      That is a great question! At the minimum wait 1 day. We usually waited a 2-3 days before staining. My tip for stripping doors is to take them off their hinges and strip them outside! It is much nicer to keep all the mess outside your home. Remove the door hinges and soak them for a few days in TSP (trisodium phosphate) to remove the paint. Put the doors up on saw horses or even lie them flat on the driveway. They are much easier to strip when they are flat. After you get most of the paint stripped off you can sand the doors to remove the last little bit of paint. It goes much faster this way. I think you will be very happy with the results!

  34. Poli


    I made my own modifications and putting together a hands free stand.

    I will try to post some pics of the paint remover and my progress.

  35. JBanker

    For anyone starting paint stripping. A safe water based paint remover you can use for interior jobs: READY STRIP(http://www.ibacktonature.com/Pages/readystrip-PD.html). You can buy it from Home Depot or Amazon. Works fine for our 3 or so layers of paint. It smells, but not too terribly and is not harmful both for you and environment. It takes a while to start working (best if left overnight) but we use it around small kids and animals with little ventilation. So give it a try. It’s not too pricey.

  36. mike

    Guys that woodwork is amazing and I know it was a Labor of Love as any Historic Restoration is. I have used that same stripper before to remove old layers of caked on lead based paint and as someone who works for a Remodeling and Restoration company in the Charlotte NC area I have made money and lost money bidding on jobs like this. There have been times when the old paint bubbled up and simply wiped off then there were times it was grueling and we had to apply the paint stripper 6 times to reveal the wood underneath. I commend you for a job well done and may you enjoy this beautiful historic home for years to come

  37. Daniel

    What would you suggest for causing laser engraved text to stand out – something to rub over the letters to darken them, but that won’t soak into the surrounding wood? Thanks!

  38. Nancy

    Thank you! This is timeless information, as I see you did your project in 2004 and here it is 8 years later. I especially like the advice about painting over the tiny bits left behind when stripping the paint, and also recommended brands. I have a huge project ahead of me and the advice from all of you who have written here will make it manageable.

  39. Brian

    My question is… after using a stripper, can I restain and is there any conditioner needed?

    • Heather

      Yes, after the wood has dried from the stripper at least 24 hrs. you can stain. We did not use a conditioner. I suggest staining a small section of the wood and letting it dry to see the results. If you are unhappy, try another section with conditioner first and then stain.

  40. Kim

    Oh my goodness I am so pleased that I stumbled upon this website. My home was built in 1909 and has the fir strips on the wall like yours but I never knew just what they were. I also had no idea that the entire bottom half of my walls had the same beautiful wood that yours does. I also have boxed beam ceilings. Did you strip the beams as well? I’m almost certain that the main part of the ceiling is plaster, not wood, because of the repaired and painted cracks. About how long did it take you to strip your dining room? I don’t have any built-ins in my dining room, pretty much just walls and windows. Did you refinish the floors or install new? I don’t remember if you mentioned this or not. If you refinished, how did you do it? Thank you so much for sharing this info!

  41. jay

    It worries me that you do not mention lead in the paint in this article. Did you test for lead? If not. I would suggest you do now. If you sanded the wood that you stripped and it had lead paint you created a lot of lead dust. I’m just curious, and worried.

  42. Seana Yates

    Hey, could you make it so I can pin your articles on Pinterest? I’m having a hard time saving it there for future reference. I really like the article. Thanks!

  43. John

    Really nice job on this huge project.

    I own a foursquare in New Haven, CT that was built in 1918. The chestnut woodwork on the first floor still wears its original finish (we’re treating the whole thing like an antique and are not messing with the finish, as one wouldn’t with an antique). I do know, however, that the finish isn’t varnish but is shellac. And it’s highly likely that any original clear finish on residential woodwork installed before about 1925 is shellac.

    If you need to refresh such a finish, you’re in luck! It’s fairly easy and non-toxic.

    First of all, do a test to figure out what your old finish is. First try wiping an inconspicuous spot with a dab of denatured alcohol. If the finish is shellac, a little bit of it will come off on the rag (a yellowish-brownish stain). If this doesn’t work you probably do have varnish, which is outside this discussion. Sorry!

    Anyway, to spruce up your shellac finish without making it look ‘new,’ gently remove the old shellac with a 00 grade pad of steel wool dipped in alcohol. You’ll need a fair amount of alcohol, but the finish should basically dissolve right onto the steel wool. This method uses a rather light touch; you shouldn’t have to rub too hard, so there’s not much danger of leaving bits of steel wool in your wood’s pores. Just be gentle!

    Once you’ve cleaned off the old finish, simply replace it with new shellac. You can do this with a good paintbrush (bristle, not poly). You can buy shellac at your local home center. DON’T use it straight from the can! It needs to be thinned. I thin it to a ‘one pound cut’ by mixing three parts alcohol with two parts shellac. The resulting mixture is thin, and will dry on your woodwork almost instantly. It’ll take a little practice before you’re good at this, but it’s worth it. Two or three coats should be fine. Wait at least an hour between coats. You might want four coats for really heavy traffic areas. Light traffic areas are fine with two coats.

    If you want, you can tint the shellac to match your pre-existing color. Use alcohol-soluble dyes available online from woodworking websites, and be discrete – a little bit will go a long way.

    If you really want your woodwork to look like a fine Stickley antique, the final step would be to gently rub it out with a good paste wax (I have used Briwax for years, but any good wax will do). Again, this will take a little practice to master the technique, but the result is absolutely gorgeous – you’ll have guests stopping in their tracks!

    The beauty of this finish is 1) that completely it’s authentic to the period, which polyurethane most assuredly isn’t! and 2) it’s more or less non-toxic. The only solvent is alcohol, which dissipates very quickly. It simply is much less hazardous than polyurethane, and much more ‘green.’ Finally, if you screw it up, simply wash it off with alcohol and start over.

    Good luck!

    • Heather

      This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

  44. huberhouse1886

    Another Benefactor. I have done a lot of stripping, but my tongue and groove wainscoat boards was a little too much detail. Now I will have to decide if I want to paint the grooves to match or continue grooving. Great Idea!

  45. Anna

    Hi Heather!

    Thank you so much for the tutorial! In regards to the touch up process – What type of paint do you use to cover the tiny specs and cracks of paint? How do you go about mixing it? Thanks!

  46. Lyssia

    I see this is an older article so I don’t expect to get a response – but if any commentator or the original poster sees I would love a little insight.

    We have a house with (hopefully) some great wood wainscoting, doors, built ins, etc. that we want to strip paint off of – IS is just easier to do all of this in place? Doors included? Or would it be worth it for us to pry off wainscoting and removed doors to do this outside? Did you lay down drop clothes, meaning was the stripping process drippy? I know this sounds pretty silly but I’d love some REALLY specific details of how you stripped and stained. Like: we tapped the edges, tapped down plastic on the floor and….. you get the idea.

    • Heather

      Hi! We left all of our woodwork in place, but took the doors off and outside to strip. I don’t recommend taking the woodwork off unless you number it on the back and then draw a diagram of where the pieces went in the room so you know how to put it all back.

      Here is the order we did things in our house: 1) strip woodwork, 2) fix the windows 3) patch and/or plaster the walls, 4) stain and seal woodwork, 5) Paint the walls.

      We had had our floors refinished prior to moving into the home, so we were super careful to protect them. If you are going to refinish you floors in the future you do not need to be this careful and drop clothes will probably be fine. We put blue painter’s tape (it comes in different widths, use a wide one) on the floor all along the perimeter of the room. Then put down thick builder’s paper all over the floor and the tape. You can get a roll of builder’s paper at Home Depot or Lowe’s for around $10. We taped the rolls down with 1″ blue painter’s tape. Stripping paint is super messy. It was nice to be able to roll the mess up in the paper and throw it away.

      Hope this helps! Good luck on your project.

  47. Rachel

    Oh, goodness! I know most of these posts are older, but I just found your site and am in LOVE! We just purchased a 1919 Craftsman and have been looking for decorating tips, and I’ve been wondering what our home would look like with the dark wood (which I love) instead of the white paint. How can we know if our trim was originally painted or stained? Just do a spot check before we start? If it’s meant to be white, then I guess I can keep it as such for the integrity of the house (and there’s a built in I’d dread stripping!), but I REALLY want to know! Thanks!

    • Heather

      Hi Rachel. Congrats on your new house! I recommend looking for a small inconspicuous place, like in a corner or the underside of a ledge…you want something that won’t be eye level or easily noticeable, and using a small paint brush to apply a thick layer of stripper in a small circle. Let it sit for a good amount of time. Scrape it away. You can tell if your wood was originally painted because the wood will have absorbed the paint into the wood grain. If it was originally stained, the paint will be sitting on top. You will see the original stain color. It was usually fairly dark, but not always. Hope this helps! Best of luck.

  48. Kevin brown

    What exactly do you mean by two coats of clear coat, one of semi gloss? Isn’t semi gloss just a type of clearcoat?

  49. Susan

    Simply beautiful. My mother stripped woodwork in my childhood home, an 1860s farmhouse, with a piece of broken coke bottle. The strippers at that time weren’t as effective. She was taking off 15-20 layers of paint.

    Beautiful work.

  50. Susan


    I have stripped and refinished our entire 2 family house about 24 years ago and I am now working on the one next door which we purchased a few months ago. The wood you show in these photos looks like American Chestnut which is what we have here in CT on these two houses. Same exact grain. The frame of these two houses are also American Chestnut which was widely used at the time. Did someone tell you yours was Doug Fir?

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