How to Frost a Cake with Buttercream

Today’s tutorial is all about how to frost a smooth cake. Getting that nice, smooth finish when icing a cake can take some practice, but I have been asked so many times about how I get my icing so smooth, I’ve finally put together some instructions that I hope will be helpful. Just remember you have to be patient. My first cake did not look like my current cakes. It took practice – and the right tools.

Want to frost cupcakes? See my post on how to beautifully frost your cupcakes!


Read transcript
Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

So to start, let’s talk about the tools you’ll need:

Icing tips (Wilton #789 for icing the sides and Ateco 844 for piping the border)
Icing bags
Turntable (I use Wilton Trim-N-Turn Ultra Cake Decorating Turntable)
Icing smoother (I 100% recommend Ateco Decorating Comb over any other)
9 inch offset spatula (I use Wilton Angled Spatula)
Fondant smoother (I use Wilton Easy Glide Fondant Smoother)
Viva paper towels (Viva brand specifically)

Let’s talk about that icing smoother for a second. I linked to it above, but it’s an Ateco smoother that costs less than $5. It is the best money I have ever spent on a tool. I used to use another one, but it was big and clunky and I had no idea how much it hindered my ability to get a nice, smooth cake until I tried this one. It’s lightweight, small and easy to use.

In addition to those tools, you’ll obviously need a cake and some icing. I used regular American Buttercream (American Buttercream recipe here). For my cakes that are about this size, I go through about 2 1/2 recipes worth.

For this tutorial, I started with a cake that was already crumb coated and had a layer of icing on the top of the cake. It’s important to already have the top layer on the cake and get it as smooth as you can with your offset spatula. It’ll get further smoothed later, but it’s best to have it smooth now too.

The crumb coat isn’t entirely necessary for every cake. Typically chocolate cakes are more likely to need them, since they tend to have more crumbs. But because of the way I add my icing, it’s not always necessary. I use an icing tip and bag, which reduces crumbs mixing into the icing.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

How to Frost a Cake

So to get started from here, you’ll want your icing bag fitted with the Wilton #789 icing tip and filled with icing. Starting from the bottom of the cake, pipe icing around the edge, trying to keep even pressure on the bag so that the layer of icing is even.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

You’ll have multiple layers of piped icing, depending on the height of your cake. The top layer needs to stick above the top edge of the cake. This will be important later for smoothing the top edges/corners of the cake.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

When you are done applying the icing to the sides of the cake, it’s time to smooth it. This is where the icing smoother comes in. Place it against the side of the cake. You want to hold it straight up and down, as straight as possible. Hold your icing smoother in the same place and use your other hand to turn the turntable. Continue to turn the turntable, scraping the icing off of the smoother occasionally so that there isn’t too much buildup. I clean off my smoother regularly and when I scrape the excess icing off of it, I usually also wipe it with a paper towel, so that there isn’t anything left on there that will mess up the icing once I place it back on the side of the cake.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Here is an image showing the angle at which I hold the smoother. I really believe the angle makes a big difference in the way the icing smooths. Do not hold it at 90 degrees. The tighter the angle (like shown), the better the excess icing pulls around the cake and fills in gaps.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

After doing a few turns of the turntable, you’ll notice some gaps that are deeper and should probably be filled in. I usually notice it at the “seems” where the three layers of icing were piped on. At this point, use your offset spatula to add some icing to the gaps. You’ll want to have a little excess icing, rather than too little.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Begin smoothing the sides again, pulling the excess icing around the cake to fill in gaps, then wiping off the icing smoother as needed.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Continue working around the outside of the cake, pulling the icing, then scraping it off of the icing smoother. You can fill in more gaps if needed, just keep working the sides until you are happy with it.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

You should end up with a cake that looks like this. The sides are mostly smooth and the excess icing from the top is still sticking up above the cake. In some places you may have tiny little holes from the air in the icing. The angle that you hold the icing smoother can make a difference in how many of those you end up with. Again, tighter angle is better. Also, some of those will fill in as we smooth the sides again later with a paper towel.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Next is always the scariest part! The top edges/corners. It was even harder to do these while taking photos. 🙂 The whole icing process took longer than normal, so my icing started to crust a bit and so it’s a little drier in the photos than yours should be at this point. You want to work as quickly as you can. If the icing starts to crust, it’s harder to work with.

To do the edges, you can use the icing smoother or the offset spatula. I use either, depending on my mood, though often I do feel like the offset spatula gives me more control. Pull the icing in towards the middle of the cake, making the corner level with the top of the cake. The spatula should be at about a 45 degree angle. The excess icing should help fill in any uneven-ness on those top corners as you pull it in.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!
Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Go all the way around the cake, until it looks like the one below. Again, my icing is a bit drier than yours should be. Hopefully, your cake top is a bit smoother.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Use your offset spatula to continue to work the icing on the top of the cake and smooth the top edges. Do not mess with the sides or side part of the corners yet. Just try to get the top as smooth as you can, the sides should already be smooth.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Next, we use the paper towel to finish smoothing any imperfections that are left from the offset spatula. Like I said above, I ONLY use Viva paper towels for this. They are the only paper towel I know of that doesn’t have raised patterns on it. You’ll notice that one side is smoother than the other – that’s the side you want against the cake.

I usually start with the top of the cake, since it tends to be rougher and need more work. Along with your paper towel, you’ll need the fondant smoother. Place the paper towel on the cake, smoothest side down, and rub in small circular motions with the fondant smoother to smooth out the icing. Press firmly and evenly, but not hard.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Do the same with the sides of the cake, evening out any bumps or air holes.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

To help make sharper corners, place the paper towel on the top of cake, letting it hang over the edge and down the side. Placing your fingers against the side of the cake to keep the icing in place, use the fondant smoother to gently push the icing out towards to edge to help make that corner sharp. Do that anywhere you think the edges could use it.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Keep working that paper towel and fondant smoother until you are happy with your cake.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Next, I like to take my offset spatula and remove excess icing at the bottom of the cake and give it a clean edge. The spatula is placed at an angle so that nothing is actually touching the side of the cake, but just the bottom of the spatula side is grabbing the excess icing. Then pull the excess towards you and away from the cake.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Use your other icing tip to pipe on your border. I used Ateco tip 844, but you could also use Wilton 1M, which is similar, or any other tip you prefer.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

Sprinkle with some spraaaankles (I used Wilton Spring Confetti Sprinkles!

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

And you’re done! Put your cake on your favorite cake stand, add a few more sprinkles and dig in!! It’s time to eat all that hard work. 😉

*Update* For some help with getting the right frosting consistency, check out my new post, How to Get the Right Frosting Consistency, on how I like to do it.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!

This page includes affiliate links.

Tutorial - How to frost a perfectly smooth cake with buttercream icing! Images and animated gifs with detailed instructions!
Learn how to decorate Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

Practice your smoothing technique on some of these delicious cakes:

Moist and Fluffy Vanilla Cake
(the recipe for the cake in the tutorial above!)
Moist and Fluffy Vanilla Cake! Such a soft, tender cake!

Strawberry Layer Cake
Strawberry Layer Cake full of fresh strawberries for flavor! Covered in sprinkles for a cute baby shower cake!

Best Chocolate Cake
Best Chocolate Cake - incredibly moist and chocolatey!

Bananas Foster Layer Cake
Bananas Foster Layer Cake - this cake is full of cinnamon, bananas and rum sauce! So good!

Cherry Chocolate Chip Cake
Cherry Chocolate Chip Cake - full of maraschino cherry flavor and mini chocolate chips!

Chocolate Oreo Cake
Chocolate Oreo Cake

Sparkling Cranberry White Chocolate Cake
Sparkling Cranberry White Chocolate Cake - super moist vanilla cake full of fresh cranberries, iced with white chocolate icing and topped with sparking cranberries!

This post may contain affiliate sales links. Please read my disclosure policy.

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Have a question? Use the form below to submit your question or comment. I love hearing from you and seeing what you made!

242 Comments
  1. Nash

    I have watched so many frosting videos and must say yours is the only one that’s so finely detailed. A big help for a neebie like me

    I want to share a picture with you so you could advise on where I went wrong
    I think I allowed my frosting to cool in the fridge before using the smoother. Which then led to bubbly cracks in the frosting
    Luckily the cake was moon themed so it looked more like rocky surfaces moon cake
    I would have sat and cried and totally given up on my decorating skills had I not stumbled upon your website tonight

    1. Lindsay

      I’m glad you found my tutorial! Yes, if you let the cake sit for a while before using the smoother, that could definitely cause cracks. Sorry to hear that, but glad it worked ok with the theme of the cake!

  2. Katy

    Thank you for this tutorial! I love all things cakes and cupcakes and have been struggling to get those crisp corners and smooth sides. I’m tossing around the idea of possibly starting my own business and have a question for you. I’m unsure if it’s the consistency of my buttercream or that I’m not allowing my cakes to cool enough before frosting them or if it’s my cakes texture that’s the problem, but every time I start to frost I’m taking away more than just “crumbs”. How long do you let your cakes cool before the crumb layer and how long do you let the crumb layer harden in the fridge before your final layer? Thanks!

    1. Lindsay

      Glad you found it helpful! I let my cakes cool completely. If they aren’t completely cool, you could certainly have trouble with them staying it tact or with the frosting melting a bit. I don’t typically let by crumb coat harden, unless there’s a very thin filling in the middle of the cake or something that I want to be sure stays in place while I frost my cake. Are you using my buttercream recipe? It’s hard to say if something with the buttercream is the problem or maybe how you’re adding the buttercream. But check out my frosting consistency post and maybe there will be something helpful in there. https://www.lifeloveandsugar.com/get-right-frosting-consistency/

    1. Lindsay

      I depends on the cake filling. If it’s thinner and the cake layers aren’t as stable, then yes. If it’s filled with a stable frosting or something, then I don’t usually refrigerate it.

  3. Liset

    Great tutorial, thank you, my problem is the frosting fell off the cake when try to crumb coat, what is wrong?, is the frosting to thick?
    Thank you

  4. Andrea

    Thank you so much for this tutorial, so useful and complete!!! I had never heard about using paper for a smooth finish! However I wonder if this will work with swiss meringue buttercream? I see that you use american buttercream ..
    Also I feel like using paper will stick to the frosting lol!! Excited to try this technique 🙂

  5. Courtney

    I am so amazed! And just bought three of the tools you recommended from amazon! Baking a perfect cake is my new goal for the rest of the year… this was so helpful! Thank you!!

  6. LAMIDE kafayat

    Please my question goes,please before you frost your cake do you normally refrigerat the butter cream.

  7. Coco

    Oooooh that smoothing phase! I never knew you were supposed to do that, i’ve been stuck with scraping and thinking why i can’t make my cakes as smooth as professionals, i just thought i was a bad scraper 😀 i feel enlightened, thank you!!

  8. iris lizardi

    Can you share what piping bag you used for the layers on the sides of the cake? It looks bigger and much different from the disposable ones you linked. Would like to get the one you were actually using in the tutorial along with the other items you linked which are already in my Amazon cart as I write this.

    1. Lindsay

      You could leave it at room temperature for about 24 hours, or refrigerate it. If you felt like it was watery, then it sounds like you added far too much liquid.

  9. Penny

    Wow!  Never really knew how. Thank you so very much. I have just joined and I am really enjoying your posts. 
    Love the little family touch and all. Too sweet. 
    Take care in these trying times. 
    Sincerely xo

  10. LAURA

    Hi can you tell me what type of buttercream you have used? Would this work with American style buttercream with white chocolate?

    1. Lindsay

      This post doesn’t have a recipe. Is there one in particular that you tried and had trouble with so that I could look at it?

  11. Kim

    Hi, thank you for your tutorial. I have been practicing but mine never look like yours does. Did it take you a while to get this technique down? I’ve made 3 cakes so far. Just wondering if there’s hope for me?!

    1. Lindsay

      I’ve made literally hundreds of cakes over the years. 🙂 It shouldn’t take that many times, but it will definitely take practice to get the feel of it.

  12. Vilna

    Do yo7 let the butter cream set before using the tissue and fondant scraper. I tried it but the tissue stuck to the frosting.

  13. Hilda

    please where can i get the parchment paper in Nigeria so i can have a smooth butter cream frosting decoration on the cake?

  14. Joanne Engle

    Hi I’m new to cake decorating and I found this tutorial helpful 
    My question is …. when using a paper towel to smooth should you let the frosting crust over first or can I do this right away 
    Thank you 

    1. Lindsay

      You want to do it right away. If you let the frosting crust first, you won’t be able to smooth it properly with paper towels.

  15. Amy

    Dear Lindsay,
    Thank you so very much for your incredibly helpful tutorial. I decided to be brave and try it since I wanted to volunteer for Cake4Kids to make a young man’s 18th birthday cake. The cake turned out amazingly well for a first time effort thanks to your clear instructions, and I think it was a blessing to him. Now I can’t wait to try it again!  Thanks for sharing your talents with us. 
    May the Lord bless you and your family!
    Amy 

  16. Martina

    What an awesome website it’s by far one of the best! And the tutorial is so detailed and perfect. I frosted my cake as I watched your tutorial and it was so much easier to watch it and follow along in steps. Thank you for such a detailed class. I’m going to keep making this cake until it looks like yours! Can I ask you what kind of food coloring you use to get that gorgeous pink?

    1. Lindsay

      I’m glad it was helpful! I use gel icing color. Wilton and Americolor both make good gel icing color options.

  17. Hilda

    this is a very educative tutorial. but I have a question. which is; is paper towel the same thing as baking paper?

    1. Lindsay

      I typically use Wilton brand piping bags, which are easy to find in Michaels, Hobby Lobby or Walmart. The 12 inch bags are good for smaller piping things (like little borders or decorations) and 16 inch bags are best for piping onto cupcakes or frosting the side of the cake, as shown in this tutorial. I often get reusable bags, but disposable ones are also available.

  18. Marian

    “Thank You” doesn’t begin to convey my gratitude for this tutorial. Working slowly with explanation as you go is a priceless gift to bakers. I needed to learn to slow down. The cake won’t age by me taking my time and with your guidance, I take control, the cake doesn’t! You’re a gem…. with a lifetime follower. And thank you for the most awesome recipes!

  19. Jesse

    Hi there–

    2 questions: 1) does this work as well with meringue buttercreams? I strongly prefer something less sweet, and would love to find a way to get the same texture on something a little lighter.

    2) do you have any advice about the temperature of either the icing or the cake? I’ve had to mess with both in the past to get decent smoothness.

    Thanks!

    1. Lindsay

      This method will work with meringue buttercream up until the paper towel part. Meringue buttercream is probably going to stick to the paper towel. I typically frost a room temperature cake with room temperature buttercream. I’ll occasionally refrigerate the cake after the crumb coat but only if there is a thin filling between the layers, like lemon curd.

  20. angela

    do you have to put the cake in the fridge before using the paper towel? everytime i have done this, my icing peels off?

    1. Lindsay

      No, I actually wouldn’t refrigerate it or let it sit first or the buttercream will crust and then you won’t be able to use the paper towel to fix imperfections without actually creating more imperfections. If the paper towel is sticking, it’s because of the frosting consistency. It it’s too thin or sticky, it will stick a bit. Feel free to check out my post on frosting consistency.

  21. Lisa

    Great tutorial! This is a valuable information for newbies like me…Thanks!

    I just wonder if I really need to use the tips you suggested (the Ateco 844 and Wilton 789)? I already have a high quality decorating tip set (Chefast brand) that I just bought on Amazon. I think the tips 47 and 17 included in the set are similar to those tips you mentioned… Can you tell me if those tips I mentioned are ok to use for smoothing a cake?

    1. Lindsay

      If you have other similar tips, they should be fine. I did a quick google search of those tips, but couldn’t find a picture of them. I’d check out the Wilton ones and see if they look similar to yours.

  22. Cate

    That’s a lot of work and time. With acrylic icing guides you can skip the crumb coat and paper towel smoothing, which is unhygienic, and create flawlessly smooth iced cakes in 5 mins. 

    Food safety and hygiene mandates the only tools that come in direct contact with food are tools that can be sterilized. 

  23. Ashley

    Thank you so much for this! I made your cherry chocolate chip cake yesterday and was so frustrated with my lack of frosting abilities… blah. All in all it was fine but I want to be able to achieve a nice, smooth cake. I never have seen these tips before so thanks so much!! Looks beautiful.

    1. Lindsay

      It’s a very specific paper towel – the Viva. It’s the only smooth paper towel that I’m aware of. Parchment paper becomes an issue if it wrinkles up and transfers those wrinkles onto the cake.

      1. Ondie

        Ok that makes sense 🙂 I already have all the tools except the fondant smoother which I ordered yesterday (Its an add on only item on Amazon) with a few other supplies I was running low on. Anxious to give this a try sometime soon 🙂

Lindsay
About Lindsay

I'm a wife and mom to twin boys, a baby girl and a sweet black lab with a serious sweets addiction! Bring on the sugar!

Scripture I’m Loving

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12