How to Decorate a Birthday Cake Like a Professional

Updated on July 5, 2017

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.

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 cake decorating lane, I did take 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 store, 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 a 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 used repeatedly, 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.

You may also consider purchasing a starter kit, like the Wilton Decorating Basics Student Kit. I like this one because it includes all the basics, as well as some practice boards and instructions so you can practice some techniques.

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.

  • 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 up 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!


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. 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 the 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. 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 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 is 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.

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

Questions & Answers


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      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 4 years ago from MA

        Thanks topratedgift!

      • topratedgift profile image

        Kate Jacobs 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia, USA

        Those are some amazing cakes. I wish I had talents like you.

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

        Thanks tammyswallow. Give it a try! It really is a fun skill, and it easily impresses!

      • tammyswallow profile image

        Tammy 5 years ago from North Carolina

        These are gorgeous. I am not a great baker, but this makes it tempting. It would be a great skill to have. Sharing and pinning!

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

        Thelma Alberts. Thanks for commenting. I have been asked to take orders, but haven't taken the plunge! That's exciting that you do that. I hope you enjoy it!

      • Thelma Alberts profile image

        Thelma Alberts 5 years ago from Germany

        Very informative and useful hub. Belated congratulation for your winning the hubnuggets. I did not take cake baking and decorating class but I have worked for a few years in a cafeteria here in Germany and I have learned so many things from the chefs. Now I´m baking cakes for any occasions, for orders.Thanks for sharing.

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

        LetitiaFT: If I can do it, you can! It's mainly a matter of having the right tools, and a little patience and creativity.

      • LetitiaFT profile image

        LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

        Great tips. I took a cake decorating class when I was a girl and I loved it. I did a pretty good job at the time. Then again, I could also do backward dives off a diving board back then. I've since lost my ability to do both, but your article makes me think there may still be hope for cake decorating!

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Emilybee: Thanks so much for commenting and sharing. I've done both, made my own and used store bought. I tend to use store bought because it guarantees results. But, if I'm making cake for adults, I do usually make my own frosting. This Wilton buttercream frosting recipe works very well.

        Personally, I would still have some store bought frosting on hand, just in case!

      • emilybee profile image

        emilybee 6 years ago

        Wow you are good! Very impressive cakes. It's cool you took cake decorating classes-that must have been fun. Do you make your own icing to put in the decorator bags? Or use something store-bought? That's my main problem. I make from scratch cakes but have been using Betty Crocker icing for the decorating which is very difficult to maneuver and write with (and doesn't taste the best either). Sharing and voting up.

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        thesingernurse: Thanks so much for your comment and compliment! Baking cakes is a lot of fun and has a great payoff (yummy cake). I say: go for it! Let me know if you have any specific questions and I'll be happy to advise. Enjoy!

      • thesingernurse profile image

        thesingernurse 6 years ago from Rizal, Philippines

        Wow! Those cakes of yours are adorable! This hub is a perfect reference for someone who would like to venture on some cake decorating. Honestly, I want to try baking cakes but I don't have an idea where to begin...

        Bookmarked your hub and will read it again by the time I gather all the stuff I need to bake my very first cake. :D Voted up and shared as well!

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Thanks Mizjo! Even the small stuff impresses. I'll have to try some swirls next time! :)

      • mizjo profile image

        mizjo 6 years ago from New York City, NY

        Hi, LauraGT, I thought I was a good cake decorator with my cream cheese swirls! But you certainly take the cake, pun intended!

        Congrats on your HubNuggets nomination.

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Thanks sunbun. I'm glad you found this useful!

      • sunbun143 profile image

        sunbun143 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        Very clearly written instructions and tips! Congrats on your nomination!

      • ripplemaker profile image

        Michelle Simtoco 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

        I am always amazed at the different concepts a cake can have. Thanks for this tips!

        Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! To read and vote

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Thanks Brainy Bunny! Cake knives/spatulas are are really useful and worth it. Beware the cake aisle at AC Moore! :)

      • Brainy Bunny profile image

        Brainy Bunny 6 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

        Love your tips. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who resorts to cake mix when baking for kids! I really need to get a nice spatula. When you try to use a spoon to glop the frosting on, you get what you deserve!

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Thanks Peg!

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        Fun ideas for decorating a cake. I loved the construction themed one!

      • LauraGT profile image

        LauraGT 6 years ago from MA

        Hi Cake Connoisseur. Yes, freezing the cake ahead of time is key. Good luck this weekend!

      • profile image

        Cake Connoisseur 6 years ago

        Great tip about the freezing of the cake, LauraGT! I'm going to try it on a cake this weekend.