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
- Long wood skewer/s
- Pen or marker
- Cardboard base for each cake
- White tape (optional)
- Dowels (12″ Wilton Dowel Rods or 1/2″ wood dowels)
- Saw (for smaller dowels, large pet nail clippers work great)
- Pencil sharpener (or knife for whittling)
- Sand paper
- Apple corer (for use with thick dowels only)
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Insert Wood Dowels into a Cake
Horizontal Support Dowels
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.
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.
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