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How to Decorate a Birthday Cake Like a Professional

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Motherhood has brought on new passions such as cake decorating, party planning, and cooking for and with my children.

Learn how to decorate a cake at home with this easy-to-follow tutorial.

Learn how to decorate a cake at home with this easy-to-follow tutorial.

Decorating a Birthday Cake at Home

Decorating a cake at home can be easy and fun, provided you have the right tools and know some cake decorating basics. Whether it’s a cake for your kid’s birthday or dessert for a pot-luck dinner, having a few supplies and tricks up your sleeve is all you need to create a creative, beautiful, professional-looking cake at home.

Practice Makes Perfect

I’ve never considered myself particularly creative or artistic, but after just a little practice, I have been able to make professional-looking birthday cakes for my kids’ birthdays on a variety of themes. It is so rewarding when people ask where I purchased the cake. I’ve even been asked if I plan to open my own cake-decorating business!

When I first ventured down the cake decorating lane, I did make it to 2 sessions of a 4-session class. While I don’t think a class is necessary, it is what prompted me to buy the supplies and jump on in. So, here is what you’ll need to make creative, professional-looking cakes at home.


Having the right supplies is the first step to launching your cake-decorating hobby. You can purchase all of these items online or at any major Arts and Crafts stores, like Michaels and A.C. Moore. While there is a dizzying array of cake supplies, the ones listed below are the essentials to get you started.

  • A straight spatula is one of the golden tickets to creating a professional-looking cake. This is the tool that will let you slather on gobs of frosting, but, most importantly, will allow you to create a smooth finish on your cake.
  • Featherweight decorating bags. Ziploc bags can be used to “pipe” out the frosting, but I prefer these featherweight bags. They are made for this purpose, so they are the right material and can stand up to the job. They can also be washed in the dishwasher and repeatedly used, so they are worth the investment.
  • Couplers. These are the two-part pieces of plastic that connect your decorating bag to your decorating tips. They allow you to change decorating tips without changing the bag. I would suggest having at least 2 of these so you can decorate with multiple colors at the same time.
  • Decorating tips are what will allow you to make different shapes with your frosting, including pretty lettering, flowers, and trims, to name a few. Essential Wilton tips for basic decorating are 3 (round), 16 (star), and 21 (star). Once you have those, you can easily begin your cake-decorating journey. What you buy beyond that will depend on what you want to decorate. For example, I needed some grass on one of my cakes, so I purchased Tip # 233, Multi-Opening Decorating Tip. For a complete list of tip types and style numbers, see Wilton's Decorating Tips and Tips Sets.

Other Materials You'll Need

In addition to the supplies listed above, you will need the following “ingredients” to successfully decorate your cake.

  • Cake, of course! Whether you have a great recipe you make from scratch or rely on Betty Crocker, you will need a cake. I personally prefer homemade cakes - I like knowing that the ingredients are all-natural. However, when I am spending gobs of time decorating, especially if it is for the under-10 crowd, I often rely on making the cake from a mix. (Shhh . . . don’t tell anyone!) It saves some time, and consistent results are pretty much guaranteed.
  • Frosting. This is the #1 key ingredient for cake decorating. Once again, I love making my own frosting but often use store-bought when working on masterpieces for my kids, as it is always the perfect consistency.
Look at this gorgeous construction site cake!

Look at this gorgeous construction site cake!

  • A cake design. Some of you may have the natural gift of artistic creativity and can design your own cake. The rest of us need to rely on a little help from the internet. There are tons of great cake ideas out there (some found right here on HubPages!). My favorite place for inspiration is This site has tons of pictures and descriptions of birthday cakes others have made. I usually browse this site and gather the best ideas to make my own creation. I then draw a sketch of what I want so I can see it on paper.
  • Other Props. Some cakes might be decorated solely with icing. Others need props, like people, trees, trucks, or animals. These can often be found at arts & crafts stores, Target, Dollar Stores, or online. Sometimes finding these props can be the most time-consuming—and fun—part!
Here's a moon-landing cake design I made for my son's birthday.

Here's a moon-landing cake design I made for my son's birthday.

Another gorgeous butterfly design!

Another gorgeous butterfly design!

Cake Decorating Tips

Now that you have your supplies, materials, and design, it's time to start frosting! While the exact steps you’ll need to go through differ for each cake, below are some universal tips.

  • Freeze your cake. Frosting a frozen cake will make your life exponentially easier, and cake quality will not degrade when frozen, so there is absolutely no reason not to freeze it. Freezing your cake will make for a nice, smooth frosting finish. Depending on the size of your cake, freeze it for 4–6 hours or up to 2 weeks.
  • Prepare the frosting. The frosting is easiest to apply at room temperature or a little cooler. If it is fridge temperature, it will be too hard and will not flow naturally; if too warm, it will be too soft, and it will be impossible to manage. If you are coloring frosting, make sure you dye plenty extra in each color—it can be impossible to match colors later if you need more of that color. Finally, adding frosting to your decorating bag can be a messy business. Fold over the edges of the bag, and use the straight spatula to fill the bag.
  • Frosting layer. Whatever your cake design, you will most likely want a smooth layer of frosting over the entire cake. If your cake is frozen, as I suggest, it will be much easier to frost the cake in a smooth layer. Use your straight spatula to apply and smooth the frosting. Act fast, as the frosting will harden quickly on the frozen cake. To smooth out the cake, dip the clean flat spatula into a cup of hot water and use it to smooth out the frosting.
  • Decorate according to your design. All cakes will be different, so use your design as a guide, and have fun!
  • Do not frost in the heat. Trying to frost your cake in the heat is a recipe for disaster. I learned the hard way one hot summer how quickly icing melts in the heat. Make sure you have a room-temperature environment to frost in.
  • Frosting is forgiving. The frosting is very versatile. It can be used, as intended, to make beautiful cakes to be enjoyed. But did you know it can also be used as a cement (if your cake falls apart) and touch-up paint (for when the frosting doesn’t turn out quite the way you want it to!)?
  • Cutting out shapes is easy. I shied away from cutting shapes for a long time. When I finally tried it, I was surprised at how easy it was, especially if the cake was frozen. Cut away!
  • Make a practice cake. No matter how much I plan for a cake, I always feel better after a trial run. I learn something every time I frost a cake, so the “real” one always comes out better. It also builds my confidence to know that I can execute my design.

Happy Decorating!

With a little bit of creativity and planning, and the right tools, you can decorate a great homemade birthday cake. Have fun!

© 2012 LauraGT