Introduction: Cake Decorating Stencil

Want to put a special design on a cake but don't know where to begin icing?

We had that problem, until we solved it with a homemade cake stencil. All we needed was a piece of 11" x 17" paper, an X-Acto knife, some high-lighters and some powdered sugar.

And a cake, of course.

Step 1: Keep Your Design Simple.

I'm not going to go too much into design parameters. This is your cake. Knock yourself out. But I would recommend that for your design, go with something relatively simple, mostly geometrical. In our case, we had a cartoon-ified squirrel that had been broken down visually to his vector-based shapes. Vector-based designs have the added benefit of being scalable.

Whatever you decide, print the design on a piece of paper large enough to cover your cake. Our design fit perfectly on a piece of tabloid-sized paper (11" by 17"). Again, keep it simple. Plain white paper will do just fine. And for the sake of insurance, print three or four copies.

Step 2: Gather Your Tools.

The tools for this next part are fairly simple.

Here's a list.
- an X-acto knife or knock-off equivalent
- a pair of highlighters, different colors
- a self-healing cutting mat (optional, I suppose)
- adhesive tape (Scotch tape)

You can get your X-acto knife (or equivalent) and the cutting mat at just about any decent craft store. The mat makes life so much better, as you've no worry about damaging anything beneath your paper while also gaining a surface to bear down on with just enough resistance.

My cutting mat is just a bit bigger than the tabloid-sized paper, 12" x 18". This allowed me to use Scotch tape on all four corners to secure the paper in place on the mat.

Planning Ahead:

Later, you're going to need ...
- some T-pins
- a small flour sifter (the one-handed kind)
- some confectioner's sugar

Step 3: Highlight, Then Highlight Again.

This next part requires a steady hand ... actually, so does the part after this as well ...

Using the lighter of your two highlighters (green, in my case), trace the outline of your design where you're pretty sure the borders of your icing will be. If you're not certain, trace it anyway. And don't be too concerned about how your highlights will work as a stencil, as we'll handle that soon enough.

See, the benefit of using the highlighter is that your traced outline is going to be just under an 1/8th of an inch thick. This is good.

Once your initial outlining is done, step back from your traced image and start to consider how a stencil works. Stencils have to have those little connecting bars, you know? Think of a stenciled letter "O" and how you the top and bottom of the "O" have breaks in them, because the center of the "O" would just fall out otherwise.

Thinking about those breaks or bars, use your other highlighter (blue for me) to mark where breaks need to be in your traced outline. Be generous, because the more breaks you have ought to make for a more durable stencil later.

Notice in my squirrel here that the blue marks are a bit thicker than the green, just to make them a bit more obvious.

Step 4: Time for Surgery.

Put away the highlighters and break out the knife.

Using the green tracing as your guide, cut away the parts you've highlighted as carefully as possible. You're not just cutting by tracing once over the each mark once.

Instead, you're cutting out the width and length of the green highlighter line. Use the blue breaks as hard stops to tell you where not to cut. This will leave you with several little 1/8th inch wide slivers of paper.

Tedious? Sure, but the end result is worth it.

Step 5: Place the Stencil.

Once the cutting is done, take a break. Shake out your cutting hand and stand up.

Next, we bring the design to the cake.

Our cake baked in a 10.5" x 15.5" pan. Once baked and flipped out, the surface came out to be about a half an inch narrower all around. What matters here is that we had enough surface to handle our design. Furthermore, the paper was wider than the cake.

Place the cut-out stencil on the cake surface. You can use the cut-outs to determine if you're lined up in a way that works.

Once you're okay with your placement, you might want to secure it in place. Toothpicks might work, but we found that wig pins (T-pins, basically) worked even better. They're sharper and smaller, so they punched quickly through the four corners of the paper without creasing or ripping. And just a half-inch or so of depth is all you need to hold it.

Step 6: Dust Your Design.

You'll need a couple more tools. Or rather, one more tool and a substance.

Get a small flour sifter -- the one-handed kind -- and about a cup or so of confectioner's sugar. Put about half of the sugar into your sifter.

With your stencil in place, start sifting over your paper. Think of it like dusting for fingerprints, because coverage is key. Don't be too shy, but don't leave mounds of sugar either. You might not use all of the sugar, but maybe you will. In the end, you shouldn't be able to see the cut-out design on your stencil as all of your cut-outs will be full of sugar.

Once you're done, carefully -- I mean it -- lift the stencil straight up off the cake. Find a friend so that you've a hand on each corner. You might want to have the kitchen waste bin very handy and ready to receive, paper and sugar and all.

Step 7: A Map for Icing.

If all went according to plan, you've got a design on your cake, rendered in powdered sugar.

Our cake was chocolate, so the design was obvious, but I believe that even on a vanilla cake, the white sugar will be plenty evident. The sugar is perfect for this application because the base ingredient in just about any frosting is going to be? Yep. Sugar. Once the icing starts to flow, the sugar will be mostly absorbed into the frosting where the borders meet.

What next? You get to go to town with your frosting, and for that ... you're on your own.

Good luck!