Even basic stacked cakes require interior supports to prevent tiers from shifting or getting squashed. I use dowels and cardboard for cake infrastructure because I find it to be a reliable and economical method. I am not a big fan of the SPS (single plate separator) system because it’s expensive, the plastic plate is unnecessary (except for cakes with elevated tiers), and the chunky columns displace an awful lot of cake. Bubble tea straws, which can be used in smaller cakes (2, maybe 3 tiers) are inexpensive and easy to cut to size. Personally, I like to use wooden dowels, because they are trusty. I have made over one thousand wedding & specialty cakes and have never had any problems using the following dowels and cardboard method so here it is.
- Long wood skewer/s
- Pen or marker
- Cardboard base for each cake
- White electrical tape (optional)
- Dowels (12″ Wilton Dowel Rods or 1/2″ wood dowels)
- Saw (or clippers)
- Pencil sharpener (or knife for whittling)
- Sand paper
- Apple corer (for use with thick dowels only)
► Every tier of every cake that I make has a piece of cardboard beneath it that is the shape/size of the intended result (so a 7” round cake gets a 7” round cardboard). The cardboard stays 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. The cardboard both serves as the cake’s working platter and acts as the cake’s platform once it’s assembled.
► For wedding cakes and big party cakes that are going to sit on display for long periods of time, I reinforce the cardboard’s edges with white electrical 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 serving the cake to disassemble and move each tier upon cutting. The white electrical tape also hides the brown cardboard edge from ever showing.
► In terms of dowels, I use different kinds depending on the project at hand. For smaller 2- tiered cakes like the above bottom tier body of a police car groom’s cake, I use the 12″ Wilton Dowel Rods, which are narrow but durable.
► 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, I use fatter dowels like these 1/2″ wood dowels. Dowels of various widths can also be found at the hardware store.
► Once a cake tier is fully frosted, I measure its interior height in order to determine the length of interior support dowels needed. I do this on a cold but not frozen cake by inserting a long skewer dull-side-down and all the way through the cake vertically until it hits the cardboard base. Then with a pen, I mark the skewer at the point where it meets the cake’s surface. Then I pull out the skewer and use it to measure the dowels for cutting.
► To help cut a number of dowels to the same length, I tape them together with electrical tape so that their ends are flush. Then I mark and cut them all at once. This also helps keep them grouped together.
► I 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 dowels protrude above the cake’s surface, there will be a gap between tiers, which creates an uneven pressure on the cake above, which may cause the dowels to shift or the cake above to bow, thus compromising the entire cake’s structural integrity.
► To remove dowels from within a cake because they are the wrong length or because it’s time to serve the cake, I use needle nose pliers to grab and pull them out.
► To cut wood quickly, cleanly, and accurately, I use a miter saw, which slices in one clean swoop. Neeeooo! It is the best tool for cutting wood dowels. Before I got a miter saw, I used a reciprocating saw along with a miter box to cut dowels for cakes. A miter box (above far right) is a gadget that holds the wood and has slots for the saw blade to help ensure straight cuts. I find that a reciprocating saw works better and quicker than a traditional hand held saw but my preference is the miter saw.
► When trimming dowels for small, lightweight cakes that don’t require the heft of power tools, I recommend large pet nail clippers. Pet nail clippers…I know it sounds weird. But they work great, especially on the 12″ Wilton Dowel Rods. I have a pair in my tool kit that I use often and exclusively for dowels (never for paws). They are sharp and accurate, their only limitation being their size: they can’t fit wide diameter dowels.
► No matter which type of sawing/clipping method you use, always remember to 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 bits.
► When adding thicker dowels to a cake, I first use an apple corer to remove the narrow cylinder of cake that will be displaced by the wood. The reason for coring is that it helps prevent cracking a cake’s finished surface.
► For stacked tiers that get moved or transported, I also push one or two narrow sharpened dowels (I like the the 12″ Wilton Dowel Rods for this) vertically through the levels to prevent cakes from sliding from side to side.
► The best tool for sharpening this type of support dowel is a pencil sharpener.
► When inserting long pointed dowels through tiers, I press slowly but firmly with two thumbs. Sometimes I’ll tap the tip of a dowel lightly with a hammer to help it pass through a cardboard cake base. I try to do this when a cake is not too cold because a cold cake is more prone to cracking.
I push the sharpened dowels (marked by the arrows above) down to the same level as the support dowels. I prefer to leave them visible for the person whose job it is to find and remove them.
► When I drop off stacked cakes at weddings or catered events, I try to find the person who is supposed to cut the cake so I can describe to them how it’s built, where the dowels are located, how many people it is meant to serve, etc.
Here is the blueprint of one of the more complicated stacked cakes that I’ve built. It was a monument cake with a cookie topper featuring the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and the Alexandria Lighthouse. More on this cake is in the Advanced Engineering section of my book.
This cardboard & dowel system works great for me. I hope that you find it helpful too!
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