Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A real fake wedding cake: Part 1

This cake is made of spackle and paint and cost <$20 in materials
Photo by Erika Jackson

Lately, fake wedding cakes have become all the rage. Real cakes are expensive and are made to look good, but often taste lousy. With a fake cake, you can save money, AND your real cake can taste good.

My housemate Cindy got married in June and I was one of her bridesmaids. She asked if I would be able to make a fake cake for her, since I am a crafty sort, and I agreed. I looked online and most of the fake cakes I saw were fake cakes covered with real fondant or frosting. Since we both live in Washington state but the wedding was in California, this was not a very feasible solution. Besides, nobody I know knows how to make fondant, and having to learn how to cover a cake with fondant and then decorating it is halfway to just baking a damn wedding cake, so it seemed beside the point.

Since I am technically minded, I sorted out all my cake requirements and wrote them down (a cake spec).

1) easy to transport on an airplane
2) assembles on location without further decoration or frosting
3) no fake slice required (there was no official cake cutting)
4) looks modern
5) looks real

These days, it seems fashionable to make wedding cakes look fake (case in point – can you believe this cake *isn’t* made of plastic and paint? “Some people didn’t even realize it was a cake! Exactly what we were looking for!!”). This definitely worked in my favor. However, I didn’t want people to question whether the cake was real or not (since I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of telling them “Of COURSE it’s real”) so I shot for making it look as realistic as possible. I understand that this is the opposite of the goal for many bakers.

Because we had to transport the cake to California and would not have time to decorate further after arriving, we ruled out covering it in fondant or real frosting pretty early. After looking around for a while, I settled on using these paste boxes from Joann’s.
Joann’s has multiple sizes and shapes of these boxes. Just search for “paper mache box.” For mine, I used 8”, 10”, and 12” square boxes. I actually couldn't find 12” ones online and had to make it myself out of a cardboard box, further complicating things. I don’t recommend this, so if you want to make it easy on yourself, go with the round hatboxes. They are sold almost everywhere and come in a range of sizes. You could also, of course, mix and match. If you do use these boxes, inspect them before buying to make sure that your box is as square (or round) and free of imperfections as possible. It will make your life easier.

There is also a place online called Taylor Foam that sells “cake dummies,” which are professional fake cake bases. They are made of foam, pretty cheap, and come in a wide selection of sizes and shapes. You can’t get more perfect than that.

I decided not to go with the foam for a few of reasons. Firstly I wasn’t sure how I would frost over the styrofoam. Mostly it was because I wasn’t sure how long shipping would take and if I screwed up one of the tiers, I’d have to purchase another one and get it shipped again. If it came down to the wire, this would increase the chances of disaster. And a little bit of it was because it felt like cheating to buy real fake cakes. So instead I went down to my local Joann’s and bought a couple of paper mache boxes, safe in the knowledge that if things went south, I could hop on back and buy a replacement tier. The boxes also come with convenient lids which you don’t need for the cake, so they make wonderful guinea pigs for any ideas you want to try. And to top it all off, they fit Russian-doll-style into my carry-on.

This is where the OCD side of me kicked in. I wanted the cake to look like it was covered with fondant, like this.
Photo from
The problem with fondant is that it is very smooth, a little bit shiny, and it gives corners a rounded appearance, since it is a thick layer that goes over the cake. With a fake cake, you will typically have very sharp corners or edges on whatever box you’re using, and it will be difficult to make the surface perfectly smooth. I do not recommend trying to make your fake cake look like fondant. Maybe shoot for buttercream like this
Photo from

or this

Photo from
Also, lots of cakes have very sharp corners so trying to round them out is really not necessary.

Not knowing any better at the time, I decided to try to make the corners of my cake as round as I could, and make the surface as smooth and shiny as possible. For the “frosting” of my cake, I used spackle and paint. You may be able to use just one or the other. Here are the pros and cons of both.


Pros: Spackle is fun to work with. Applying it feels satisfyingly like applying real frosting. You can use it to cover up imperfections on your cake surface. If you screw up, fear not. Spackle is easy to sand off, and you can buff out any unevenness, or use another layer to fill in any holes. After all, that is what spackle is for. A pint-size can will run you about $5 (you will probably need 2). I got a nice kind that is pink and turns white when it dries. This makes it easy to tell when it’s ready for sanding.

Cons: Spackle takes forever to apply (gets better with practice, but still). It also takes a lot of time to sand and is sanding is messy and hard work. It’s easy to use a lot of it and make your cake quite heavy. You also run the risk of the edges cracking, though you can avoid this if you are careful when handling the cake. Spackle is not really waterproof, so you have to be careful, especially if you want to use real flowers. Also, the appearance of spackle is pure, blindingly white, and a bit sandy. It does not look particularly like cake, but you can try it for yourself on a test material to see what you think.

To apply it, I used a metal putty knife. I had a plastic one but preferred the metal because it has a little flex and this makes the application easier.

Note that for spackle, you will have to either spackle the whole surface, or none of the surface. I tried spackling just the corners, sanding it down flush with the surface, and painting over the whole surface. It didn’t work because you could actually see the difference in textures underneath the paint. The part that was spackled was very smooth and the part that wasn’t was a bit rougher.

Since spackle is handy to have around, it doesn’t hurt to just buy some even if you don’t wind up using it for the cake. If you’re going to spackle, there really isn’t any reason you shouldn’t also paint. Painting is quite easy compared to spackling, and it makes your cake sturdier, more waterproof, and makes your cake any color and gloss you want.


Pros: Paint is easy to apply. It comes in many colors, and you can get it as shiny or flat as you want. A cake is small enough that you could easily cover it with a sample size can or two. One sample will run you about $3.

Cons: Paint will not cover up all the imperfections. I thought at first that by applying many layers, I could cover up all my sins. *Not* true! Also, be careful what you use to apply the paint. A cheap brush will leave brush marks, which you don’t want. I used a roller and that worked pretty well, though it had a tendency to leave tiny little holes. When choosing the gloss of your paint, keep in mind that a high-gloss, shiny paint may look pretty, but when viewed in the right light will show ALL the imperfections in the surface.

At first I tried a Glidden paint in eggshell (that’s the gloss) and it was too glossy for me, so I ended up using a Behr Ultra with primer (the equivalent of a matte finish).

Stay tuned for part 2: The Process


  1. Hi
    Did you use Spackle then covered it with fondant? or just Spackle only?
    And how did you transport it by airplane? how did you wrap it?


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