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. 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 prefer to use wooden dowels because they are trusty.
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.
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 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 cutting the cake to disassemble the cake. The white electrical tape also hides the brown cardboard edge from ever showing. This especially applies when dealing with elevated tiers.
Different sized dowels may be required
depending on the project at hand. For smaller 2-tiered cakes like the above body of a police car groom’s cake, plan to use narrow Wilton dowel rods
. The base tier with the dowels inserted are seen below.
Because these cakes are wrapped in modeling chocolate
, they are sealed in plastic wrap to keep condensation from forming on the surface of the modeling chocolate
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 and 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 protruded above the cake’s surface, the next tier won’t sit level, then the entire cake’s structural integrity can get compromised.
Large pet nail clippers work great
for cutting narrow dowels one by one. To cut a number of dowels to the same length (when a saw is involved), tape them together with electrical tape so that their ends are flush. Then mark and cut them all at once. Always hold cut dowels up side by side to make sure they are all the same length.
To cut wood quickly, cleanly, and accurately,
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.
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 bits.
When adding dowels to a cake
, distribute them so that they can most evenly absorb the weight that will be pressed upon them from above.
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. The reason for coring is that it helps prevent cracking a cake’s finished surface.
Once the wooden support dowels are all in
, it helps to 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 above. This way, each tier’s frosting remains better intact.
For stacked tiers that get moved or transported
, it’s important to push one or two narrow sharpened dowels through multiple tiers. These Wilton dowel rods
work great for this purpose. The purpose of these longer dowels is to prevent the tiers from sliding or shifting side to side.
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 a little if you have to) because you don’t want a sharp tip of wood breaking off inside the cake.
When inserting long pointed dowels through tiers, press slowly but firmly with two thumbs. Once you hit the cardboard, tap the tip 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 a cold cake is more prone to cracking.
Push the long sharpened dowels (marked 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, where the dowels are located, how many people it is meant to serve, etc.
Here 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
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