How to Make a Tiered Cake

Well, it's confession time.

Once upon a time I decided I was going to make a tiered cake.

My ill-informed brain: ‘Well, I think I know how to make a tiered hard can it be? Put the smaller one on top of the bigger one!’ 

Lessons were learned! My top tier SANK probably a good centimeter into my base tier – and it tipped quite a bit in the process!

It was a tester cake, just one I made for fun, and my coworkers didn’t care how lopsided it looked the day I brought it into work. The fact that I decked it out in chocolate candy and Cadbury Easter eggs may have had something to do with that.

But – the thing that I took away from that experience? Fails are part of the process, but YOU DON’T HAVE TO MAKE EVERY MISTAKE YOURSELF!  One small cardboard cake circle and a couple of straws for dowels would have prevented the entire disaster! Seriously. Let people (::cough:: like me ::cough::) who have learned the hard way teach you the better way!

So – to help you avoid a cake-tastrophe similar to mine – below is instruction on how to dowel and stack a tiered cake!

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video has to be worth exponentially more than that, right? See below for a quick video overview of doweling and stacking a 3-tier (10-inch / 8-inch / 6-inch) cake! This is another video tutorial that I found helpful

(Disclosure: As an Amazon associate I may earn from qualifying purchases, and my posts often contain affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you!)

Okay, the basics first!

Tiered or stacked cake styles – often made for weddings or celebrations– are made by stacking progressively small cake tiers on top of each other, allowing for multiple flavors in one cake, and enough cake to feed a large number of people. 

Some cake artists even use accessories like columns to separate the tiers for a more dramatic look. Tiered cakes are beautiful, but without a strong foundation they can collapse - partially collapse like mine, causing an uneven cake - or even completely collapse and ruin the entire cake!

One point of term clarification – because this confused me for a while – layers and tiers are not the same! See image below.

Assembling & stabilizing your tiered cake: the basics

1. Use cake circles:
On the bottom of each tier of your cake, you need a cake circle – these are most common cardboard, but can be made of plastic as well. It just needs to be sturdy enough to not bend easily! You can measure and cut your own, but it's inexpensive and much easier to buy them - I always use Wilton's pre-center-punched 10-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch circles, or you can even buy a variety pack like this one if you don't need a large pack of each circle size.

I've had the best luck using a circle for my base tier that’s an inch or two larger than the cake base (e.g. for a 10” cake layer, use a 12” cake circle, etc.) This makes it easier to pick the cake up to move it to its final serving location, whether you're stacking your tiers before or after you transport the cake.
For your middle/top tiers, I use cake circles that are the same size or just a tiny bit bigger than my cake tier. One trick I often use is to use my cake circle as an icing guide! I trim my layers so they’re just slightly smaller than my circle, and use the circle as a guide for my bench scraper so the frosting goes on smoothly and the cake tier stays perfectly round!
Some sources say not to stack more than two cake layers on one board/cake circle. I’ve had no problems stacking three layers, but if your tier will be more than 6” tall you should probably use another cake circle in the middle of the tier.

2. Use support dowels:
For most of my cakes, I use bubble tea or coffee straws as support dowels! They’re lighter, cheaper, and MUCH easier to cut than wood dowels - and the bright colors make them easy to find when it's time to remove them.
The only time I've used a wood dowel was when these long plastic dowels were out of stock. I needed a long central dowel for a 3-tiered cake that had to be assembled before transport. I actually bought a marshmallow roasting stick, and used a small saw to cut it to the right length. It was a pain and I don't recommend it. :/

(The ONLY time I’ve gotten away with not doweling a base tier was when that tier was a very dense vanilla cake, and I didn't have to transport the cake anywhere. You may be able to get away without using supports if your base layers are very dense – but I still recommend dowels just to be safe, especially if you need to transport your cake.)
One rule of thumb is to use one dowel for every 2-3 inches of cake. (E.g. 10-inch cake would need 4 or 5 support dowels). I like to put one in the center of the cake to make stacking evenly easier.

3. Additional supplies - (these are the basics I use for every cake, tiered or not - well-assembled tiers will give you the best end result!)
- (Obviously, cake layers / frostings of your choice)
- Cake leveler – uneven layers make uneven cakes. :/ This cake leveler from Wilton is inexpensive and has been my go-to for 4+ years as I write this. 🙂
- A Cake turntable, will be your best friend in getting your frosting smooth and even on your cake tiers. I also use a large offset spatula, and a bench scraper/pastry cutter as a cake comb.
- I recommend using a long central dowel only if your cake is more than two tiers or more than 12 inches for ease of stacking and additional stability.
- I often use a kitchen ruler to help center and space my dowels
- Small 2-directional level – you can often find these for under $10, and it will ensure your tiers are level AND that your central dowel is straight!

Okay! Quick step-by-step guide/checklist for assembling a tiered cake!
(I find it the easiest to frost my tiers individually and then stack them. You can stack them first if you want; adjust the directions below accordingly.)
1. Make sure to use a bit of frosting underneath your base tier to hold the cake to the cake board! Apply your crumb coat, and then spread the cake tier with frosting and smooth.
2. Mark the center of your layer, and use your next cake circle to outline where the next tier will go – this will help you make sure you place your support dowels where they won’t be visible!
3. Cut your dowels to the height of your tier. Mark where your support dowels will go, making sure to place them at least ¼” inside your marked circle. Evenly space and then insert the dowels into your base tier, making sure to push them straight down.
4. Center your middle dowel- this is where the ruler can come in handy, and the vertical level can make sure it's straight. Center your next tier on top of your dowel and slide it straight down, making sure to center it on your base tier.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 until your cake is stacked!

This part is completely up to you! If you're looking for a simple cake style that's been trending lately, texturing your buttercream with an offset spatula works beautifully!

If you're looking for cake or frosting recipes, you can find all of my favorite recipes here!

Make your first tiered cake, or find something on this page helpful? Let me know  how it went - or find me on Pinterest or on Instagram and tag @IntensiveCakeUnit in your photo!

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