So, here's a mini-conclusion about my time replacing the head gasket, timing components, water pump, and other bits. I'd like to preface this with a quick thank you to all who answered my questions; it helped tremendously.
Things are always difficult the first time you do them; from taking off different accessories to setting an engine on TDC, it can be very difficult to keep track of everything you're doing. To those who have more experience than me working on vehicles, I'm sure doing a head gasket on a Z24 would be fairly straightforward. So this dialogue is more geared towards those who (like me) do not have the experience.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give when doing this procedure is to take more pictures; more than you may think you need. This is especially important when it comes to the vacuum lines on the stock Hitachi carburetor, because it really is a fucking mess. My suggestion is to take pieces of painter's tape and number different hoses on both sides of a coupling point, so when you remove it you have a better chance of finding where everything goes. On the notion of documentation, pay particular attention to where each length of bolt on the timing cover goes, as there are multiple lengths due to the fact that some bolts also hold brackets for the power steering pump and accessory belt tensioner, while others go through the water pump, and some simply go into the timing cover itself. My advice would be to take a picture and either print it out so you can write which length goes where, or use a mobile application (like iPhone Markup) to write notes on the picture digitally. This will save you the headache of breaking bolts off in the block (I broke at least two), which obviously is a time-killer. Putting various bolts in little plastic bags and labeling the bags (and how much is supposed to be in them) makes looking for things much easier.
On the notion of replacing components: conventional wisdom dictates that the best replacement is the OEM one. I used an OEM head gasket, water pump, water pump gasket, head bolts, intake gasket, exhaust gasket, oil pump gasket, and so on. Where there is no OEM replacement, find parts that are made in Japan. The biggest piece that I can think of is the timing kit I used. I used a timing kit from OSK (I'll look for the part number later). I ordered my parts from the Nissan Parts USA website through my local Nissan dealer (Walser Nissan in Burnsville). You pay more, but in my opinion it is worth it.
Now onto the actual procedure:
I found the FSM to be mildly helpful; my suggestion would be to print or type up a procedure for yourself using the FSM as a guide. If there is anything you do not know how to do, consult Youtube to get a rough idea on how to do it. The most challenging part for me was removing the timing cover, and particularly the procedure for doing so. My recommendation is to put the engine at TDC before removing the timing cover (which involves removing the oil pump to access a bolt on the bottom). This will help ensure that your distributor is in time with the engine on assembly, so you do not have the fiasco I had of removing the oil pump about six times to set the timing. After removing the timing cover, mark the chain and both sprockets for removal of the chain. I made three marks on the chain, camshaft sprocket, and crankshaft sprocket to ensure that I had the orientation correct. After this, have no fear in removing the components. It took me a half hour just to remove the timing components because I was very nervous. In the same token, don't feel like you need to do it fast. Take your time, measure three times and cut once.
Once the timing assembly is removed, my recommendation is to take the intake manifold and head off as one unit (the bottom bolts of the intake are almost impossible to access or crack loose). Once the head is off, take it to a local machine shop and have it leveled. For me, this helps with the peace of mind.
Assembly was much easier than removal of all the components. My biggest recommendation is to take the stupid rubber half-moon off the front of the head until you have literally everything done aside from installing the valve cover. I dropped the half moon in twice, and one time resulted in me having to completely remove the front cover again. In addition, place a rag inside the hole to block any other things from falling in (like a screw or socket). Better safe than sorry; slap a spot of RTV on the half moon when you put the valve cover on and it shouldn't fall off again.
That is about it for this conclusion. Here's where I'm at now:
Last night, I removed the snow tires from the truck and put my summer tires back on (in August, lol). The engine is a little down on power (thanks in part to old gas, and needing to set the hot valve lash as well as fine tune the ignition timing) but it seems to drive okay. Looking into the future, I have brakes for all four corners on the way because the brakes are pretty bad at this point. The rears drag a lot, and I believe the passenger front brake is pretty worn down. I also have an exhaust leak which is a simple fix.
I have one question regarding the rear drums: where is the best place to get the self-adjustment device? It seems like the kits I ordered do not come with one, and Google searches have been fruitless.
That's all for now; unfortunately the truck is greasy and gross so no pictures yet. Look for some in the future! I hope this little conclusion was informative and mildly entertaining.