The one big thing that discourages more would-be cake bakers is that they feel they can’t reproduce the thick, even layers that they see professionals working with in bakeries and on TV. Here beginners are at a built-in disadvantage since most recipes (to say nothing of most cake mixes) just aren’t designed to produce layers of that thickness. They’re written with the assumption that home bakers are using the thinner 9″ x 1 1/2″ cake pans instead of the industry standard 9″ x 2″.
The problem I’ve always found is that the thinner you go with cake layers, the more they tend to “crown” or bulge in the center. The layers are thus very hard to ice and stack, and give the cake a rounded top. Of course you can do like the pros do and square them off with a serrated knife (long versions of which are called “cake saws” in the trade), but then you’re left with layers an inch or less thick.
The solution: buy yourself some professional cake pans, and get yourself some professional recipes (Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible is a terrific place to start). Should you be married to an old family recipe that you simple can’t live without, just be sure you fill your 9 x 2 pans with between 26 and 27 ounces of batter. That amount will produce nice thick, uniform layers which, when trimmed a bit with a saw, will give you the height and squared edges you’re after. This will mean doubling the recipe, which means extra batter, which of course means cupcakes. Everybody wins.