These are all the secrets for levelling up your cake decorating game

how to decorate a cake
How to decorate a cake Oscar Hather - Hearst Owned

Vintage style cake decorating is trending at the moment, and we're all for it! Whether it's for a birthday cake, wedding cake or christening cake, wow your guests with these expert decorating techniques. Your sponge can be any flavour, from chocolate cake to lemon drizzle, or red velvet to coffee cake, just pick your favourite flavour and get decorating!

It all begins with...

Crumb coating

Get the foundations right. For a super smooth surface, ready to decorate or pipe on, start with a polished crumb coat and a fab final coat:

  1. Trim your cakes to level. Add a spoonful of buttercream (see 'buttercreams for piping below') to the centre of your cake board to stop your cake moving around.

  2. Sandwich the sponges together, using generous layers of buttercream or filling of your choice, with the baked side of the top sponge facing upwards.

  3. When crumb coating, it’s best to apply the buttercream little and often, as this will help to give an even distribution and prevent dragging crumbs around the cake. Use the tip of a cutlery knife to dot the buttercream all over the sides and top of your cake. Apply a little more buttercream into any gaps or holes, if necessary.

  4. Smooth the buttercream on the top of the cake with an angled palette knife, then smooth the buttercream on the sides of the cake with a cake scraper or large palette knife. Scrape any excess icing left on the cake scraper/palette knife into a separate bowl as it may have crumbs in it. If there are any gaps or holes fill with a little more buttercream and smooth again.

  5. You will have little peaks at the top edge of your cake, use an angled spatula to draw these peaks towards the centre of the cake. Chill the cake for 5 mins.

Final coat

Apply a second coat of buttercream, applying little and often with a cutlery knife, then follow steps 4-5 above for a smooth canvas on which to decorate.


Classic buttercream

This buttercream is perfect for decorating celebration cakes. The mixture of butter and vegetable fat means the buttercream will form a light crust when set, which is perfect for heavily decorated cakes as it can be touched lightly without leaving a mark. Use 3 parts butter to 2 parts white vegetable fat. For a large celebration cake, with a hand-held electric hand whisk, whisk together 300g softened butter with 200g of vegetable fat until pale and fluffy. You need a ratio of 1 part fat to 2 parts icing sugar, so gradually whisk in 1kg of icing sugar, in batches. Add 2tbsp cold water and 2tsp vanilla extract, whisk until pale and fluffy.

Vegan buttercream

Using the same ratio of 1 part fat to 2 parts icing sugar, and 1tbsp cold water, use vegan spread in place of the butter. You can use 3 parts vegan spread to 2 parts white vegetable fat to give a slightly lighter colour, but using vegan spread alone makes a really creamy buttercream. It won’t crust, but is great for piping on smaller, simpler designs, such as a rose-shaped swirl on top of a cupcake.

Bright white buttercream

Using white vegetable fat alone in a ratio of 1 part fat to 2 parts icing sugar will not crust but it will give you a brilliant white colour. As it remains tacky, it’s a great surface if you are wanting to completely coat a cake in buttercream and then stick sprinkles to part, or all of the surface.


Seamless run of piping

Make sure you have plenty of buttercream in the piping bag, give it a gentle massage to ensure there are no air pockets as these could break the line mid-flow.


Use an open star nozzle to create a line of shells – perfect for piping around the edges of your cake. If you are using a small or medium sized nozzle, hold the nozzle at a 45º angle to the top of the cake, squeeze and release so a shell-shaped bead of buttercream comes out of the bag, moving the icing bag along, whilst continuing with this squeeze and release motion. Unless you have a motorised turntable it’s best to pipe a quarter at a time using this method - it will not affect the overall design, it will be so highly patterned you won’t notice any ‘joins’.

If you are wishing to pipe a border of large shells using a larger nozzle, you will have more control piping them individually, rather than in a continuous line.

For beginners, a great place to start, is to pipe a border on a rectangular cake or traybake, as a straight line is easier to pipe.

String work and dots

To pipe string work, hold the nozzle at a 90º angle to the side of your cake. Start with a gentle squeeze to create a sturdy starting point, then ease off the pressure a little whilst continuing to pipe a ‘U’ shape. To finish each string, gently squeeze a little more on the piping bag to create a dot, this will enable a clean break before starting the next one.


Open and closed star nozzles are perfect for this. Closed star nozzles give a slightly more ‘frilled/ flower’ effect to pen star nozzles. To cover the top of a cake, hold the piping nozzle vertically to the surface of the cake, pipe straight down onto the surface to create a star shape then move around the star in a circular motion, whilst realising slightly towards the end. To decorate the sides of a cake, hold the nozzle at a 90º angle to the cake.

Piping nozzles

There are lots of piping nozzles coming in all shapes and sizes, out there, but here are 5 of my favourite styles.

Open star nozzles

Wider tooth star nozzles are great for getting the perfect Mr Whippy-style swirl on a cupcake! This is also a must for "shell" piping.

close up of a large open star piping nozzle
Hearst Owned

Closed star nozzles

Closed star nozzles, when piped in a rosette fashion, can give a very realistic flower shape.

close up of a large closed star piping nozzle
Hearst Owned

Petal nozzles

Petal nozzles are a must for creating flowers. Large nozzles are great when positioned vertically against the side of a cake to create vintage-style ruffles.

close up of a large petal piping nozzle
Hearst Owned

Round nozzles

Smaller round nozzles are perfect for piping dots, swirls and strings. Large rounds are great for modern swirls on cupcakes or use to squeeze individual peaks around the top of a tiered cake.

close up of a plain tipped piping nozzle
Hearst owned

Large leaf nozzles

Great for adding leaves to flower designs. Hold the nozzle so the narrow opening is horizonal to the surface, then at a 45º angle, squeeze the piping bag gently and pull away.

How to wash your piping bags

Whilst we encourage you to invest in a non-disposable piping bag for eco-friendly reasons, even disposable piping bags can be washed and re-used a few times. To wash your piping bags, turn inside-out, wash with hot, soapy water, and leave to dry over a bottle.

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