Cake Decorating Tips 101: A Guide to Frosting Decorations

frosting decorations

We love a simple cake with whirls and swirls of frosting created with a butter knife or the back of the spoon, but sometimes we want to add shells, dots, flowers, leaves or a simple bead border. These are all accomplished with a pastry bag, coupler and specific decorating tips. Know that whatever tip you are using, the slightest change in angle of the tip and bag will produce a different result. Varying pressure will also alter the look of what comes out of the tip, so practice, practice, practice! Note that some companies use the same numbers for their tips, while others have unique number designations.

frosting decorations

Here are some basics:

Using a Pastry Bag

You will need a pastry bag, couplers and decorating tips. We like using a 16-inch bag and a coupler, which allows for easy switching of tips so you can make roses and contrasting borders easily on the same cake, for instance. When the bags are new, their narrow openings are too small to fit a coupler; they have to be cut to fit. Cut it just enough so that the coupler’s ridges are emerging through the newly cut opening. This will allow the cap that comes with the coupler to screw on tightly after the tip is put into place. When there is a range of numbers presented for tips, such as Ateco tips #16 to #22, they are all the same shape (in this case, star tips). The smaller numbers are just the smaller sizes.

Choose your tip and place it on your coupler; screw the coupler ring into place. Fill the bag about halfway with soft frosting. Twist the top of the bag closed, firmly against the frosting, which should be pressed down toward the tip end of the bag. Hold the bag gently with one hand down near the tip (this will be the guiding hand) and use the other hand to hold the twisted part closed tightly against the frosting; this hand will press down, applying pressure on the frosting, encouraging it to move toward and out of the tip.

Practice does help! Fill a bag with frosting and practice on an overturned cake pan. This way you can scrape up the frosting and keep practicing.

Writing on Cakes

If you want to use a pastry bag and tip to write Happy Birthday or other words on a cake, use Ateco or Wilton tips #3 to #6, which are small, plain, round tips. The example is top left of image. We find tips smaller than #3 difficult to use and larger tips make the writing too thick. Simply press the frosting out of the tip and write in script or print, either free-form or use a toothpick to apply pin dots on the cake first to form the letters as you desire. Review Our Best Tips for Writing on Cakes.

Shells and Reverse Shells

Use Ateco tips #16 to #22 or Wilton tips #13 to #22, which are all open star tips. Hold the bag at a 45˚ angle to the cake just slightly above the surface. Begin pressing frosting out of the bag and allow it to accumulate at your starting point just enough so that it fans out on either side of the tip and builds up. It will contact the tip itself, at which point you should gradually loosen your pressure, move the tip forward and away from the start point as you also bring it down toward the surface. Gradually release all pressure and pull tip away. Your first shell will be completed. This method makes a symmetrical shell; you can also angle the bag and pipe the shell so that it lies on its side and shows more of an inner swirl. Examples are second and third from left in top image.

To make a shell border, begin the next shell right over the tail end of the first. The tails can be elongated to make thin, elegant shell shapes, or you can make them plump and close together. A reverse shell is a chain of shells, lying on their side, alternating the direction of every other swirl.

Beads and Beaded Borders

Use Ateco or Wilton tips #6 to #12, which are plain, round tips. For individual beads, hold the bag vertically just above the cake surface. Squeeze out a small amount of buttercream, releasing pressure when the bead is the size you desire. By quickly pulling the bag away to the side, if you do the movement correctly, the end of the tip will clip off any point that might have developed on the bead.

Practice will help. Pipe out little balls of frosting right next to one another, creating a beaded look, to form a border. You can also pipe single beads here and there. See row third from right  in top image.

Rope Border

Use Ateco tips #8 to #12 or Wilton tips #6 to #12. These round tips can create a simple border that looks like a twisted rope. Begin by holding the bag at approximately a 45˚ angle to the cake surface. The action is that of an S shape. With even pressure, pipe a sideways S-shaped curve. Release pressure. Insert tip under bottom curve and pipe next S. Repeat to make a continuous rope. The rope is represented second from right in top image.

Leaves and Leaf Borders

There are two basic sets of tips that make leaves. Ateco tips #65 to #70 and Wilton tips #65 to #69 make a traditional-looking leaf and Ateco #349, #350 and #352 and Wilton tip #352 make a more streamlined, contemporary-looking leaf. Leaves can accent flowers or be used by themselves. You can make an orderly leaf border by having the leaves overlap symmetrically, or pipe them angled from one another, one going to the right, the next to the left.

In general, all leaves are piped the same way. Begin by holding the bag at approximately a 45˚ angle to the cake surface. Squeeze gently to build up the base of the leaf, while simultaneously lifting the tip slightly up, then downward and away from the base while loosening pressure. As you pull the tip away, the leaf should form a point. If it does not, it will leave a double “tail.” Simply pinch those two points together to make a neat, single point (moistened fingers work best). Our leaves are shown on the right hand column of the top image.


Use Ateco tips #16 to #22 or Wilton tips #13 to #22. There are simple rosettes and swirled rosettes. For simple ones, hold the bag vertically just above the cake surface. Squeeze out a small amount of buttercream, releasing pressure when the rosette is the size you desire and lift bag up and away. For swirled rosettes, begin as described above but rotate the bag in a tight 360˚ motion, then release pressure and pull up and away. You can make individual rosettes or pipe them next to one another to create a border. These rosette styles can be seen in the two left columns of the second image.

Rose/Flower Buds

These are piped directly on the cake (cupcake or what have you) and look like tiny buds. Use a pastry bag, coupler and tip #101. Hold bag at a 45° angle with the narrow part of tip facing down. Use medium pressure and starting at the base of the bud, bring the tip up and then down, just slightly off to one side. Make one or two additional petals to create a small bud. These can be seen second from right in second image. These make nice accents to cakes featuring fuller roses, as seen on our Buttercream Roses Sheet Cake.

Drop Flowers

Wilton tips #’s 190 (with standard coupler), 1B and 2D and 2F (used directly in bag) are my favorites for this kind of flower; they are used in conjunction with small round tips such as Wilton #’s 2 and 3 for the centers, which can be the same or in a contrasting color. Hold bag vertically above cake, with wrist turned inward towards you (for right handers your knuckles will be facing 9:00 position). Just touching the surface begin to slowly press frosting out of bag as you simultaneously turn your wrist, ending at the 12:00 position; gently pull bag up and away. Use round tip to add a dot-shaped center. You can see our two-toned drop flowers in the right column of the second image.

Adapted from The Birthday Cake Book: 75 Recipes for Candle-Worthy Creations by Dédé Wilson (Harvard Common Press, 2008). Images by Melissa Punch.

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