One of the first things you probably want to do once you have graduated from the basics of baking and cake decorating is to make a tiered cake! But, if you're new to cake decorating... it may not be entirely obvious that you can't just plop one cake on top of another (well without disastrous results!). Mosey on over to Cake Wrecks (on any day but Sunday) and you are sure to see what happens when a cake is not properly supported!
Methods for Stacking and Support
you can skip to the bottom of this post to see a
video demonstration of the system I use
There are many different ways to stack and support your cakes. The cheapest, most readily available and one of the most common methods is the dowel method. I used this method when I first started, before I knew there were other ways... It DOES work, when done properly, but transportation always seemed a bit perilous!
All you do it insert wooden dowels (Wilton sells them), into your cake, mark and cut them to the height of your cake, and then place the upper tier (that is on a cake board) on top of the dowels. Don't get me wrong, this technique is widely used in cake decorating, and used successfully... However, you can run in to a few problems... and when people speak of cake disasters, very often this is the support system they used.
First of all... an integral piece of the support puzzle is to make sure your cakes are level... it's not just aesthetics, if your cake isn't level, it is extremely likely to slide, lean or collapse (unless you are intentionally making an unlevel cake- ie Topsy Turvy, in which case you'll need a bit more careful structuring...). When cutting your dowels, it is very easy to cut them just a bit off, resulting in an uneven, unlevel and unstable cake. Next, what if you don't insert the dowels exactly perpendicular? You're dowels can go in skewed or even slip under the weight of the cake it's supporting... You end up with an uneven and unstable cake... What if your cake boards get soft from the butter or oil or whatever moistness is in your cake or buttercream? The dowels don't have a rigid surface to support and/or rest on!
Now, yes, these are the extreme case "disaster" scenarios... but they DO happen. Cake Central has a dedicated "Cake Disaster" forum, filled with stories of cake collapse... and many (granted, not all) start with "I used dowels." Now, if this is what you have, go for it! Just be careful to cut your dowels evenly, and take care to make sure your cakes are level. A slight variation to this method, that many swear by, is to use Bubble Tea straws (you can buy them online or at Asian markets). I have not used the straws, so I can't comment about how sturdy they are, but I think a lot of the problems that could arise from the dowels would apply here as well.
2. Metal Cake Plate/Rod System
If you are looking for a more secure and reliable method for stacking and supporting your cakes you will probably run across metal systems, such as Cake Stackers, in your research. Now, I have not used this system, but I have been "Wowed" by the video of a woman holding a 5 tier stacked cake completely horizontally! In my opinion, this system looks great! However, it is an investment... the pieces are intended to be used over and over... so they can cost a pretty penny. Then, you have to "rent" out your set when someone orders a cake (and if you're busy with cakes then you'll need a few sets) and worry about getting everything back, undamaged and in a timely manner. And, if you are just a hobby baker this system might be cost prohibitive. For the Cake Stackers, smallest tiered set (10-8-6 rounds) you're looking at about $100 (on sale!). If you are inclined to invest in this system, I say go for it! If cost wasn't an issue an issue I would!
3. SPS (Single Plate Separators) System by Bakery Crafts
SPS is the system I use... SPS is a system of plastic plates and pillars/columns. I like it for many reasons. It is extremely sturdy. The columns lock into "feet" on the bottom of the plastic plates, they aren't going to shift under the weight of the cake above. The columns are thick plastic and won't splinter or crack! The plates have a little plastic peg on them, you poke it into the cake board of the tier resting on it and in combination with royal icing "glue" the tier isn't going to shift around! The pieces are cheap enough, that you can consider this a disposable system. No hassle trying to get your pieces back, worrying about deposits, rental fees, and the possibility that your investment has been damaged or lost. However, the plates and pillars are sturdy and durable, if you wish to re-use them you certainly can!
Here is the video demonstration I put together of how to stack a cake with the SPS system. I was just stacking a small 2-tier cake in the video, but I've used it on a large 4 tier cake, with no worries!
(I apologize for the lack of narration! My audio got messed up and the microphone on my new computer is terrible! I had to explain the steps with captions)
The SPS pieces come in a variety of colors and size (and shapes for the plates). I just use the White Round plates and the 4" White Grecian Columns. I prefer to build my cakes to exactly 4" tall and not have to worry about having to cut the thick plastic. However, the columns come in 9" lengths that are scored for easier cutting... or you can get extenders if you need to add a few inches to the 4" pillars.
You can find SPS almost any online cake supply store... as well as some of your local cake supply shops. My local shop does not carry SPS, so I order from Global Sugar Art online.
I hope you've found this post helpful!
Happy Caking :)