Beginners article/review of the domino XL

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YorkshireMartin

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Like many of you, I've seen many mentions of the Domino on this forum and elsewhere over the years.

The first time I saw it discussed I thought it sounded very useful, so off I went to google. My research was quickly ended, along with the working life of my computer keyboard, when I saw the price and spat my cup of tea all over the desk. In the two years since, I've been working on developing a basic level of skill with hand tools and learning to construct simple joints, particularly mortice and tenon, by hand. One point of note, I don't like using metal fasteners in my projects and if it's possible to avoid it by any means, I will. It's just a personal preference which I initially intended as a personal goal, that I may or may not now be regretting :lol:

After a career break I'd decided to pursue woodworking as an alternative path. I set aside a significant portion of my savings to pursue the subject, so I would not feel like I had to work to a tight budget, which I felt may have added pressure to an already difficult scenario. I'd never done anything like woodwork before, so I decided to put ambition ahead of finance. But I did want to do this for an income eventually, that was and always has been, my goal. I realised I had to walk before I could run. In fact, when it came to it, I found that woodworking was more a case of being able to roll over, then crawl, then walk and then run! I think I'm still at the crawling stage.

My hand tool journey has gone reasonably well, but has been an eye opener. Cutting a mortice and tenon with the precision that I've since found out they inherently require, is one heck of a challenge for me, as a beginner. I had no idea so many different skills would come into play. I accomplished it eventually, with some degree of precision on my 5ft bench. It fitted together, anyway. Cutting 16 large M&T's had taken me several days using a chisel, mallet and saw, which I'm sure isn't abnormal for a complete beginner, but left me feeling like if I was ever going to try to produce pieces commercially, as per my ambition, I either needed to invest a couple of years doing nothing but cutting joints by hand for practice, or find an alternative route. I wish an apprenticeship had been an option for me, but sadly it was never to be. Maybe in the next life.

About a month ago I started to browse the newly delivered Festool catalog and up pops the domino. This time, the larger and meaner XL version. "Now we're talking" I thought to myself. It seemed like my work bench could have been made in a few hours, rather than a few days, with joints of almost equal stature to those cut by hand.

The thought of it kept nagging at me. I did have a budget, which at least was something, but could I really justify such an expensive tool at such an early stage in my learning? Was it even appropriate for me? More importantly, was I shirking the learning phase? Well, yes, yes and yes. It felt like a fit to me, but perhaps I would be compromising myself and my goals in some ways too.

I visited Axminster in Warrington and bought the domino XL and some boxes of dominos. It set me back just over £1000, all told. As I was loading the car, a chap approached me and instantly clocked me for the aspiration hobbyist I was, saying "oh, splashing the cash buddy". A mild insult perhaps, but I don't exactly look like a joiner and to be fair, Festool are oft regarded as perhaps the tools a 1980's yuppie would have chosen whereas "real" tradesmen probably go for Makita ,Dewalt of Bosch. Who knows, maybe I misunderstood? In any case, I'm not one to simply throw cash at a problem and hope to get away with it, so in a way, the encounter made me more determined than ever to make my investment pay off. I have to prove myself, to myself.

A couple of days later I had the time to sit down and look at the Domino itself. It's a big, beefy machine but as with most Festool products, an silly person could use it. Lucky for me then. :lol:

The machine feels weighty, it's fair to say, but at the same time it's ergonomic. The body consists of the usual Festool blue nylon, which has a reasonable quality feel, although if I'm honest, the best feeling plastic bodies I've encountered belong to the Makita professional range (not the B&Q SKU's, generally). I'd be mostly unconcerned if I was to drop a Makita but I'm always on edge slightly if I use a Festool, although this may be due to the not-insignificant price premium. As a point of note, on the TS55 track saw, Festool use a weaker ABS plastic on the motor housing cover to act as a "crumple zone" in the event of a drop, so that is perhaps the case on the Domino? I'm not sure and I'd have to tear it apart to tell, still, it's an interesting approach to tackling the problem of site durability.

The front handle makes it easy to maneuver into position and you never feel as though you're wrestling the fence onto the workpiece. As with (almost) all Festools, the calibration is close to perfect out of the box. They seem to have solved the issue with the alignment of the magnifying acrylic window being out of line with the calibration marks on the base plate, previously the first thing that a buyer would have had to tackle. The spring loaded pins on the working face are intended for lateral alignment of the mortices themselves and are graduated, but also provide a nice positive indication that you have located the machine correctly on the face of the stock to be morticed. They locate with a soft "click", which it's fair to say is almost as satisfying as popping bubble wrap.

There are two levers around the fence, one allows you to alter the fence angle, which is self explanatory, and the other, the height as measured from the fence (top face of the work piece) to the centre of the bit. I think I'd prefer it if the levers felt a little more substantial, I keep thinking I will twist them off or break them. On my tool, the height adjustment handle is a bit stiff, but I think it's because it's new. If it doesn't wear in, I'll probably fire off an email to customer services.

The height gauge is easy to adjust, simplicity itself. It works by using a stepped plastic insert to support the fence at a given height and is marked in graduations of 5mm, 10mm being the minimum height on the Domino XL. You can also set the height manually in graduations of 1mm, which on such a big machine is a little faffy, but you do get the feeling that once you set it, it will stay there, so time to set up not really a major issue as users of this tool will be making repetitive cuts.

The plunge depth is set by means of a gauge under the main handle near the base of the machine on the left side. It is locked by default and needs to be released by using a simple pinch grip. You then slide it to the desired plunge depth, which ordinarily of course, is going to be half the length of the domino you are using. The maximum depth of plunge is 70mm. This will be more than adequate for almost any joinery I would think.

An additional lever is present on the left side of the machine, just below the power button. It is important, as it sets tolerance for the mortices. There are two settings, let's call them tight and loose. On tight setting, dry fitted domino's are so tight in the mortices that it takes considerable effort to remove by hand. On the loose setting, they are rather sloppy, surprisingly so, actually. For alignment of say, a table top, you'd probably want to index using a tight mortice, then follow up with loose, to allow for any compound inaccuracies. This does work very well and is a simple feature to make use of.

Regarding the power button itself. I have short thumbs, yet it is easy to reach. I have one criticism here and that is that it is a simple on/off switch. I would have liked to have seen an additional safety feature in the form of a secondary button. I'm not a health and safety anorak, but I do view any type of router as a dangerous tool, perhaps more dangerous than a saw. The bits are small, incredibly sharp and plunging. I realise this decision was probably taken with production speed in mind, as that is what the domino is designed to enhance, but still, it takes very little effort to activate a double power switch really.

I've handled the Domino 500 and between that and the 700 (XL) I'd say the XL is better balanced. Yes it's heavier and more laborious to position, but once it's there, it doesn't feel as though it's going anywhere, even on narrow stock or with the tool upended using the supplied brace. This has implications though, if you rely on manually holding the stock in place and using the domino single handed. This would be difficult to accomplish with the XL.

Dust collection is absolutely flawless. Not a single speck was to be seen anywhere during my test cuts. This is an area Festool are particularly known for and they did not disappoint with the XL.

The mortices are flawless, theres really not much else to say. Tearout is virtually non-existent but I have found that it's better to plunge slightly slower, especially into black walnut which I always find to be rather brittle. As someone said on another post somewhere, count to 4 during the cut.

So, on to my practical test. Does it work for a beginner?

I wanted to make something as a real test, so late one evening I went to Wickes to buy some "whitewood" that I could ruin with reckless abandon and not really worry about the cost too much. My wife suggested that our son needed a basic little desk for his room to do his colouring on, so that was my challenge.

From not even having read the instructions, how fast can I make a childs desk using the domino?

Well, the answer is as follows. 1.5 hours after arriving home with 2 x 2.4m lengths of natures' "curly wurly" I had a fully dry assembled desk. This included resawing the sections for the table top with my newly reconditioned bandsaw, for my first attempt at book matching and hand planing the top. I think the marking up and actual domino joinery took 30 minutes, for a beginner, with no real project plan. It was almost too easy. I can honestly say I did not feel the same sense of achievement that I did when I completed my bench by hand.

I'm finding it difficult, in my position as an inspirational amateur, to recommend the Domino. It's so effective and simple, that it draws your attention away from what woodworking may be about for a lot of us amateurs, the physical aspect of working the wood. It creates a production line out of a craftsman. I know how this sounds, given my aspirations and generally positive view of the tool, but I think these days, in the age of convenience, availability and instant gratification, those of us that started working with this wonderful and varied natural product to feel perhaps that little bit different, to relax, to have our time as craftsmen, might find it detrimental to their own goals as an individual.

This is the microwave meal of woodworking, a convenience which we know is detrimental to us, but which we accept in order to achieve balance with our overall objectives in life. This is about nothing more than time. It was never intended as anything else of course, and providing that is kept in mind, the Domino is a very good tool, in fact it is superb. It is innovative, well made, balanced, powerful and, when combined with some adapters from Seneca Woodworking, extremely versatile. I cannot fault it as a tool really, either functionally or aesthetically.

Contrary to my points above, there is the opposing argument for someone who needs to make a living, that actually, perhaps the act of creating a mortice and tenon by hand isn't really what is important when you've done it 5,000 times. Assuming a competent level of skill in joinery, the Domino frees up the craftsman to spend more time on innovation. Does the customer actually care how the joints were physically made, as long as they were by the hands of a craftsman and not as a consequence mass production? Probably not, design and the feeling of a custom piece is what sells I would think. The intangibles are what become important once quality is assured.

I envy the more experienced craftsmen who can concentrate on the creativity in their work. It must be so liberating to know that anything you visualise, you can make. What a thing to achieve! One day I will make it to that point, until then, I must content myself with each joint in itself, being my best efforts at a work of art.

I think if, like me, you're at the stage when you're still learning how to cut mortice and tenons by hand and learning joinery in general, the domino is something to set aside or at least use sparingly until you've enjoyed the learning experience. For the more experienced among us, who earn their living by designing and crafting furniture or cabinetry, I'd argue that the Domino is an almost essential tool, if for no other reason than efficiency. If you have the work, it would make you easy money, it's as simple as that.

It all comes down to what you want from your woodworking journey. As for me, I plan to continue learning with hand tools and where I feel confident I would be able to cut the required joints by hand, time being the only constraint, then I will use the domino. If not, I will cut it by hand. My own version of a self taught apprenticeship and a means of ensuring I don't miss out on learning. There might be a happy medium elsewhere for some craftsmen, such as tenoning on a bandsaw or with a router jig, it becomes personal preference.

I love what I do, perhaps more so when I've failed a few times and the domino virtually eliminates that possibility in "simple" M&T joinery. For me, this is the only negative.

I've attached a picture of the "30 minute" desk. It needs finishing but frankly the wood is so poor Im not sure I'll go too far, tearout on this cheap wood is awful. I might treat it to a chamfer if it's lucky. It's not been anywhere near a planer/thicknesser, so I think I'm lucky to even get close to something acceptable. The top has already started to cup, before I've had the chance to make internal cauls. :lol: After morticing the wrong side of one of the slats, I decided to add mortices to each side as a reminder that this was my first domino mistake. They might also contrast quite nicely.

Thanks for reading my ramblings.

PS. With this little desk I also learned something about clamping during glue ups. Can anyone spot what it might be?
 

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flh801978

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Nice review
I don't know what you mean about wanting to have 2 operations to start the tool? If you start it it's not dangerous at all as the bit is shrouded by the fences only on plunging is anything exposed
Can't actually see anything wrong with your clamping
Ian
 

woodbrains

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Hello,

There are other ways of making mortise and tenon joints by machine. I don't agree that a domino is essential for a professional maker. It may be for some, depends on what you do, but I'd not spend over a grand for one, when a decent hollow chisel morticer is obtainable for that sort of outlay. Yes, they are not quite so quick, but are much more versatile. And you are not tied to buying dominos for the rest of your life, slot morticers would be another option that I would take before before a domino TBH. Stationary machines over power tools every time!

Mike.
 

No skills

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I agree with some of what Woodbrains says, but time and space can be sadly lacking for many of us.
And it does have to be said that time is the most precious resource that any of us have.
 

MikeJhn

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Wow that review is worthy of an American video.................. (hammer)

Mike
 

Woodmonkey

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I guess it depends what you enjoy, for me it's making furniture but I'm not too worried about how i get there. If there is an easier way of achieving the same result then why not, otherwise we would all still be whittling away with stone axes. I wouldn't trade in my domino for any morticer (a true trade would also include a tenoner by the way).
 

YorkshireMartin

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flh801978":26se9kq4 said:
Nice review
I don't know what you mean about wanting to have 2 operations to start the tool? If you start it it's not dangerous at all as the bit is shrouded by the fences only on plunging is anything exposed
Can't actually see anything wrong with your clamping
Ian

Thanks, I did try and it's my first. It would just be an extra safeguard I suppose. Call it a two finger start, if you like, not much of an inconvenience really. I'd think the same regarding any tool of this type.

Glad you can't spot anything lol. I didn't balance the clamps for legs/aprons and created myself less than perfect joints as a result. Leg angles are off.
 

YorkshireMartin

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woodbrains":16r4gdxs said:
Hello,

There are other ways of making mortise and tenon joints by machine. I don't agree that a domino is essential for a professional maker. It may be for some, depends on what you do, but I'd not spend over a grand for one, when a decent hollow chisel morticer is obtainable for that sort of outlay. Yes, they are not quite so quick, but are much more versatile. And you are not tied to buying dominos for the rest of your life, slot morticers would be another option that I would take before before a domino TBH. Stationary machines over power tools every time!

Mike.

Hmm, well I own both so I'd considered this to a point, as a beginner of course. My floor standing morticer is a sedgwick 571, so I think considered industrial and good quality. The main issue with an industrial machine is not so much that it can't do the job, clearly it can. It just feels a lot more involved to *me*. Also, you still have tenons to cut in one way or another. I think it would be hard to argue that the domino would ever be less efficient than a floor standing morticer. Agree on the cost of domino's, but that is negligible is it not?

What I considered was that the Sedgwick is nearly £2k new, I don't know what a Sedgwick tenoner costs. By the time you're done, you're probably looking at another £1k in chisel and bits for the morticer. They really aren't cheap, especially if you go for the decent quality japanese ones, which I'm assuming professionals would. Then you have time needed to sharpen them, wax them and keep the machine in overall calibration and waxed. It's not an insignificant investment of time. Even if you never bothered to sharpen the domino bits at all, a replacement is £50. I'm guessing a pro would make the difference back ten times over on a single job. If the domino fails inside 2 years of constant professional use, you can return it to Festool for a replacement or repair.

I'm not trying to suggest a one size fits all approach, but from what I know of both machines, my opinion is that a domino would save time and therefore generate more profit for a professional, with little impact in terms of quality of joint.

It's a beginners review with beginner opinions, I'm not claiming to be an expert in anything, it's just what I've observed personally in my journey so far.

Not wishing to start an argument so please dont take it as such, but what versatility do I have with my floor standing morticer? I know I can use it as a makeshift pillar drill. Is there anything I'm missing?

Genuine question, as I am starting to ponder if I have a place for it anymore.
 

YorkshireMartin

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MikeJhn":1yyg3q9p said:
Wow that review is worthy of an American video.................. (hammer)

Mike

It's a little long winded, but think yourself lucky it didn't have commercial breaks advertising abdominal exercise machines or Wendy's latest lard burger. ;)
 

YorkshireMartin

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Woodmonkey":3l0vr7ld said:
I guess it depends what you enjoy, for me it's making furniture but I'm not too worried about how i get there. If there is an easier way of achieving the same result then why not, otherwise we would all still be whittling away with stone axes. I wouldn't trade in my domino for any morticer (a true trade would also include a tenoner by the way).

If Festool released a stone axe, someone would buy it for the dust collection ;)
 

woodbrains

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Hello,

Cheeses, you have a Sedgwick morticer and you think there is any need for a domino? Wow.

The versatility of a morticer is not the fact you can use it as another machine, I.e. A drill, but the versatility of the joinery it will do. Dominos will not do through mortices, haunched mortices, multiple mortices for tenons joined with stub tenons as you might find in breadboard ends, bridal joints, small square mortices..... Indeed, I have recently made a blanket chest, which could not have been done with a domino, unless the design was changed to allow for the domino's shortcomings. You have a tool that you will have to design around, rather than design as you like and have a tool that enables you to do that. I'm sorry you think you should make up for a lack of skill and experience, by throwing money at the problem.

I have never owned a tennoner, but still use a hollow chisel mortices, sadly not as nice as your Sedgwick. In fact I know plenty of furniture makers who have hollow chisel morticers, but I don't know anyone who has a tennoner, except for a very large joinery firm which does no do furniture, per se.

It would be better if you got experience before you spend your cash, that way you would know what you would need and why. It might be that you would have found out that a domino is the thing for you, but it would have saved you getting the Sedgwick. I personally think if you had got some sort of training, you would have been more likely to have kept the morticer and not the domino. But if all you want to do is break out prosaic frames, optimised around domino sizes, then fine, my agenda is different. I don't know how making things like this can be enjoyable, but that is my failing, perhaps.

I'm glad you have the means to get these nice machines, and it is clear that you must have a good space to work. If you have the means, get some training and find out about design and construction, and I think you might find the need for less machinery that you think a substitute for experience and skill. In fact a domino is not really that, it is a production machine for a time is money outfit. If that is the work you want to do, you have a good machine to do it.

Mike.
 

MattRoberts

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Are we really going to get into that 'power tools are cheating' argument?

The domino is an excellent tool which is designed to make certain jobs easier and more accurate.

The same could be said of any tool such as the mortiser or a bandsaw or a tablesaw
 

Phil Pascoe

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Are we really going to get into that 'power tools are cheating' argument? I don't think so, so much as maybe a "tool justification" argument. Personally, I haven't any tools that haven't been justified in one way or another - they have either been bought because they have knocked so much time off a job their purchase has been justified or else they have been bought because nothing else I owned would do that particular job. My first battery drill was bought because I had 1800 screws to put into beech (without pilots), my little Rexon morticer because I had well over 100 mortices to cut quite quickly, my biscuit joiner because it enabled me to do certain jobs single handed and so on. I no longer use tools for a job, but even when I did I would think a Domino purely a luxury for what I did. I do not possess a tool that owes me.
Maybe if I were wealthier I would think differently? I don't know, that being unlikely to happen. Good luck to people who think differently, though.
 

Woodmonkey

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Dominos will not do through mortices, haunched mortices, multiple mortices for tenons joined with stub tenons as you might find in breadboard ends, bridal joints, small square mortices.

Erm, the xl would do all of those (except for the small square ones) and maybe bridal joints (which a mortiser would only do half of anyway)
 

MikeJhn

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YorkshireMartin":14m13tuk said:
MikeJhn":14m13tuk said:
Wow that review is worthy of an American video.................. (hammer)

Mike

It's a little long winded, but think yourself lucky it didn't have commercial breaks advertising abdominal exercise machines or Wendy's latest lard burger. ;)

A LITTLE long winded, you could quite easily cut out the first seven paragraphs with no detriment to the post, did not bother with the next .......... paragraphs.

Verbosity is not a virtue.

Mike
 

siggy_7

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Thanks for the well written review Martin. Personally I found it interesting (and refreshing) to hear more about the background to your purchase which helps greatly to understand the context of your review rather than simply listing the things it does well. A low risk experiment too, as if you later decide to move the Domino on you will see back most of your outlay. Lots of pros who have made the plunge seem very pleased with their choice, if I were working wood as a business I have no doubt that the Domino is a no-brainer on a cost/benefit basis which appears to be the conclusion you have reached also. Good luck with your endeavours.
 

woodbrains

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Woodmonkey":i60bkz9d said:
Dominos will not do through mortices, haunched mortices, multiple mortices for tenons joined with stub tenons as you might find in breadboard ends, bridal joints, small square mortices.

Erm, the xl would do all of those (except for the small square ones) and maybe bridal joints (which a mortiser would only do half of anyway)

Hello,

Erm, no it won't, which is why I bothered saying so. Nor will it do tusk tenons or barefaced tenons, birds mouth tenons. These all have to be worked from the solid. They are all things that have to be designed out, to accommodate the domino. Proportion has to be designed around the domino. Dodges and work around a have to be employed to do things that appear to be, or approximate what is done from solid. They are a production tool, which can be justified if production over design is your aim. But I was not commenting about that as such, but the fact the OP seems to think these things are a substitute for putting in the time and getting the skills required.

And no I do not think, as Matt is sugesting, power tools are cheating. But employing them to compensate for a lack of skill or can'tbearsedness, actually is, plain and simple. Look, if people don't understand that construction techniques and methods dictate significantly to design, and how the finished piece functions and looks, then they are at a serious disadvantage in what they make, and how well it is designed. Think of it as cooking: if all I own is a frying pan, then the recipies I cook will be designed for frying. I'm sure I could make cake in a frying pan and boil eggs, but I'll never attempt soufflé or egg pasta or consommé......

Try designing for real joinery, and see how worlds of possibilities open up rather than be restricted by a tool for the sake of saving time, or learning a skill. And let's be honest, how many times have domino owners said something like, ' I can't make it that thin, I can't fit a domino in, or that rail needs to be wider, to get a domino in.' What happened to the proportion then, designed out or turned a blind eye to, because the machine wouldn't allow our intention. And then things creep in as a symptom; 'let's make all the rails the same width, it saves a machine set up. Let's design out that interesting little shadow gaps there, I can leave the fence set up throughout the job. I cannot stress enough, creativity was never spawned from doing things with labour saving devices. Could be the reason there are no cordon bleu microwave restaurants on the high street.

Mike.
 

YorkshireMartin

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woodbrains":193bmgfb said:
the fact the OP seems to think these things are a substitute for putting in the time and getting the skills required.

Just to clarify, I stated and think the exact opposite. I think they are something to use sparingly until you've learned the basics of how to cut joints in the traditional way. I do know how to do a basic mortice and tenon, haunched and tusk and I have cut them by hand with just a chisel, ignoring even the morticer. I followed Paul Sellers method and just practiced. Still find mortices hard by hand, particularly through mortices. Always seem to forget to go half depth then flip the piece.

I actually have tendencies towards being a luddite, if anything. After a life in technology, these days it leaves me cold.

The rest of the discussion is a bit above my head, though. Thanks for all the responses, I had no idea a power tool could be so polarising.
 

YorkshireMartin

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siggy_7":fp6xoq9o said:
Thanks for the well written review Martin. Personally I found it interesting (and refreshing) to hear more about the background to your purchase which helps greatly to understand the context of your review rather than simply listing the things it does well. A low risk experiment too, as if you later decide to move the Domino on you will see back most of your outlay. Lots of pros who have made the plunge seem very pleased with their choice, if I were working wood as a business I have no doubt that the Domino is a no-brainer on a cost/benefit basis which appears to be the conclusion you have reached also. Good luck with your endeavours.

Thanks, I suppose I should have titled it "opinion piece" or something similar. Also felt that if I just stuck to the technicals as a beginner I might come across as more pompous than I normally do ;)
 

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