How to Use Wood Dowels in Stacked Cakes

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How to Use Wood Dowels in Stacked Cakes

Even basic stacked cakes require interior supports to prevent tiers from shifting or getting squashed. I recommend using dowels and cardboard for cake infrastructure because it is a reliable and economical method. This article discusses how to measure, cut, and insert wood dowels into a stacked cake. There are two kinds of supports involved with this method: vertical support dowels and horizontal support dowels.

Aside: Popular alternative methods to wood dowels include the SPS System (Single Plate Separator) which is more costly. The plastic plate is unnecessary (except for cakes with elevated tiers), and the chunky columns displace an awful lot of cake so this is not my preferred method. Bubble tea straws, which work in smaller cakes (2, maybe 3 tiers) are inexpensive and easy to cut to size but are not as reliable on large cakes.

The Wood Dowel System

Items needed

Cake Cardboards

Every tier of every cake should have a cardboard base beneath it that is the shape/size of the intended result (so a 7” round cake needs a 7” round cardboard). The cardboard should stay with the cake from the first moment the cake is frosted to the point when it gets served; the cake and cardboard naturally fuse together and remain as one.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
For wedding cakes and big party cakes that are going to sit on display for long periods of time, it helps to reinforce the cardboard’s edges with white tape, pulling it around each piece tautly to seal in the cut edges. This prevents the corrugated perimeters from getting soggy and droopy. It also makes it much easier, since the cardboard stays sturdy, for the person cutting the cake to disassemble the cake. The white tape also hides the brown cardboard edge from showing. This especially applies when dealing with elevated tiers.

How to Make a Car Cake by Wicked Goodies

Vertical Support Dowels

Dowels that are meant to support the weight of cake tier/s above are called vertical support columns. Although you can sometimes get away with using three, typically four or more dowels are needed to hold with stability. For the base tier of larger cakes, even more dowels and also thicker dowels may be necessary for stability.

For smaller 2-tiered cakes like the above body of a police car groom’s cake1/4″ thick dowel rods are just right. The base tier with four dowels inserted are seen below.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Because these cakes are wrapped in modeling chocolate, they are sealed in plastic wrap to keep condensation from forming on the surface of the cakes.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies

How to Measure Vertical Support Dowels

For the bottom tiers of larger 3+ tier cakes or large sculpted cake structures like the above base tier of a 3-level ferry boat wedding cake, plan to use fatter 1/2″ wood dowels towards the center of the cake to support weight from above. Dowels of various widths can also be found at the hardware store.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies

Once a cake tier is fully frosted, measure its interior height in order to determine the length of interior support dowels needed. Do this on a cold but not frozen cake by inserting a long skewer dull-side-down all the way through the cake vertically until it hits the cardboard base. With a pen, mark the skewer at the point where it meets the cake’s surface. Then pull out the skewer and use it to measure the dowels for cutting.

Use the skewer’s mark minus 1/8” (3 mm) to determine what length to cut dowels. The reason for shaving some length off of the dowels is that cake invariably gets compressed under dowels, which raises them up a hair. Also, it’s better for interior supports to sit just below a cake’s surface. If one or more dowels protrudes above the cake’s surface, the next tier won’t sit level, which can compromise structural integrity.

How to Cut Wood Dowels

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Large pet nail clippers work great for cutting narrow dowels one by one. I have a pair in my tool kit that I use exclusively for dowels (never for paws). They are sharp and accurate, their only limitation being their size: they can’t fit wide diameter dowels.

For larger projects, use a saw. When using a saw, first secure the dowels together with electrical tape so that their ends are flush. Then mark and cut them all at once with the saw.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Above is a small handheld reciprocating saw and a miter box that can be used for trimming dowels. A miter box is a gadget that holds the wood and has slots for the saw blade to help ensure straight cuts.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
To cut wood dowels more quickly, cleanly, and accurately, you can use a miter saw, which slices in one clean swoop. It is the best tool for cutting wood dowels and worth the investment if you run a busy cake business.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Always smooth out the rough edges of freshly cut dowels with sand paper. Then stand them on end to compare lengths and make sure they are all level. At this stage, you can sand dowels down as is necessary to even out long or crooked ends.

How to Insert Wood Dowels into a Cake

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Always add vertical support dowels before the cake tiers are stacked. Distribute them so that they most evenly absorb the weight that will be pressed upon them from above. In the square example above, the dowels have been angled to accommodate a small square offset tier.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
When adding thicker dowels to a cake, first use an apple corer to remove the narrow cylinder of cake that will be displaced by the wood. Otherwise, the pressure of the added volume risks cracking the cake’s finished surface.

Blue Ombre Bling Cake
Once the wooden support dowels are all in, add a piece of parchment paper between cake tiers that is the same size as the tier above. This helps guide the placement of the next tier. It also helps prevent the frosting from the lower tier from getting stuck to the cardboard of the higher tier above. This will make it easier to disassemble the cake later on.

Horizontal Support Dowels

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
For stacked cakes that will be moved or transported, horizontal support dowels are also necessary to prevent the tiers from sliding from side to side. These dowels are longer, pointed on the bottom, and designed to pass through the cardboard supports, locking stacked tiers together.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
The best tool for sharpening this type of support dowel is a pencil sharpener. Don’t sharpen the dowels to a point though. Make sure they are slightly rounded at the tip (sand them down a little if you have to) because you don’t want a sharp tip of wood breaking off inside the cake.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies

When inserting long pointed dowels through tiers, press slowly but firmly with two thumbs. Once you hit the cardboard, tap the end of the dowel lightly with a hammer to help it pass through the cardboard cake base. It helps to insert dowel infrastructure into a cake when it’s not too cold (right after frosting is a good time) because then the surface is more elastic. A fully chilled cake, on the other hand is more prone to cracking.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Push the long sharpened dowels (indicated by the arrows above) down to the same level as the support dowels. It’s better to leave them visible for the person whose job it is to find and remove them later on.

To remove dowels from within a cake because they are the wrong length or because it’s time to serve the cake, use needle nose pliers to grab and pull them out.

When dropping off stacked cakes at weddings or catered events, try to find the person who is supposed to cut the cake so you can describe to them how it’s built and where the dowels are located.

How to Use Wooden Dowels in Stacked Cakes by Wicked Goodies
Above is a blueprint of the infrastructure that went into an ancient monument cake. More on this cake is in the Advanced Engineering section of the book, Cake Decorating with Modeling Chocolate.

Sculpted 3D cake that looks like ancient monuments: the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and the Alexandria Lighthouse

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How to Use Wood Dowels in Stacked Cakes — 27 Comments

  1. Do you always just use one cardboard cake board under each cake, even for bigger layers. Will just one cake board hold up? Thanks,

    • Good question. No, I don’t always use one. For larger tiers, like 12″ or wider, especially if it’s square, I sometimes use two. It depends on where the tier lies in the cake – how much weight is going on top of it. It depends on the thickness and quality of the cake board – if it’s single or double ply, if it’s glossed/coated or not. It also depends on the type of cake – if it’s really moist, then you want to double up since a single cardboard is more likely to get soggy and sag, especially around the edges.

      Sometimes I add extra cardboard just to even out the height of the tiers if they are off and it matters visually that they be the same exact height. The problem with super thick cardboard though is that it’s more difficult to pass the pointed horizontal support dowels through it. The trick in that case is to insert those dowels and pound them through before stacking that tier onto the cake. It’s a matter of holding the cake over the edge of the table so the point can pass through, then pulling it back up flush with the base.

  2. I am making my first grooms cake and it is 3 layers. This is my first wooden dowel experience. I will be doing the dowels for each layer with the cardboard that the layer is sitting on, but my question is when you push a small dowel through the layers, will it go through the cardboard layers? Help I am nervous.

    • I understand that between each layer you have 4 dowels and each cake is on cardboard but when all the layers are put together do you run a longer dowel the length of the cake through all the layers?

      • I would probably do it like this: In advance of transport, secure the #1 base tier to #2 using two long horizontal support dowels. Also secure #3 to #4 with two horizontal support dowels so that the cake becomes only two parts (2 + 2). At the event, slide the top duo onto the bottom duo. No additional horizontal support is needed at that point if the cake looks level is not due to be moved again.

  3. Great tutorials, No mention is ever made about dowels or piping on how to clean them before using them. I’m assuming they should be sanitized in some way before use.

    • Judy,
      I’m not sure if sanitizing dowels is a necessary step. Although you bring up a good point here, I have never worked at a bakery that sanitizes dowels before use except in cases when a piece of infrastructure gets used more than once. Wood is naturally anti-bacterial so it is resistant to transmitting the types of harmful food-borne pathogens that you might be thinking of. Plastic is more worrisome as unlike wood, bacteria can multiply on its surface. So when using plastic infrastructure, always sanitize.

      It does help to wash dowels after sanding them down to get rid of any loose wooden particles that may be clinging to the surface.

  4. Wow…this was extremely helpful. I have to do a two tier cake and I did not have a clue on how to stack it or how to use dowels. 2 thumbs up for Wicked goodies

  5. Hi, I’m hoping you can help me with a question. I’ll be working on the largest cake I’ve ever made. It’s an 11×15 sheet cake, two-layers per layer, with a rice crispy treat roof (it’s the shape of a house I’m making) what sort of dowels should I use for each layer and should I have one or more dowels going through the whole cake? I’m really nervous that the cake is going to collapse onto itself. Any recommendations are greatly appreciated.

    • Sorry, the cake is going to be 4 double layers tall with about 4 more layers of crispy treat roof on top and fondant on the very top of the cake.

      • Hi,
        Yes it would make sense to use wood dowels in that case. For an 11″ x 15″ house cake, I would put 6 dowels in 2 rows of 3, at least 2″ away from the sides all around, as the majority of the weight of that roof will be in the middle. Make sure to put a cardboard on the bottom of the rice treats as it will be heavy including the fondant. If the cake is being transported, I would also suggest inserting 2 pointed dowels through the roof into the cake to prevent the roof from sliding.

  6. Hi, I love your site. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. Your tutorial are so helpful. I have a question, when doweling a topsy turvy cake should the dowels be cut at an angle ?

  7. Hi, I just stumbled upon your website researching info about modeling chocolate. I am so impressed, and I must buy your book! 🙂 I had a question, I cannot seem to find it anywhere on the internet.. I am considering covering my entire cake in modeling chocolate, however it will be outside in a hangar (military ceremony) for a couple of hours…. We are in CA in the high desert area and do you think the chocolate will hold up to heat, the weather here is so iffy I mean today it rained and snowed… who knows what it will be like next week. lol Thanks so much!

    • As long as the inside of the cake is stable, it should hold up in the heat. Just make sure it is kept in the fridge up until delivery and not displayed in direct sunlight. Good luck!

  8. Hi, I love your site and thank you so much for sharing all this information. Just wanted to let you know the Amazon link for the Woodsies dowels pack state they are “Birch wood, non food safe”. Many thanks! Can’t wait for your book to come out! xoxo

  9. Actually stumbled on your site, while searching for info on modeling chocolate. Your tutorials are simply amazing :- details, pictures and the “converted handy cake tools”. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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